- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

As congressional testimony goes, last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee appearance by former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey wasn’t expected to be extraordinary.

Mr. Comey had appeared earlier this month before the House Judiciary Committee, where he praised the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired by the Justice Department last year and indicated they should not have been dismissed.

But it was his response to a question from Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, that sent Mr. Comey down a path few expected, into a shadowy tale of intrigue at the highest levels of government that drew comparisons to gangster movies and President Nixon’s so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” of October 1973.

“I basically almost lost my breath because it was so astounding,” Mr. Schumer said the following day. “It was the kind of thing you’d think you’d see in a Grade B movie. And it was hard to believe that it actually happened.”

Mr. Comey said that on March 10, 2004, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel, made a secret evening visit to the hospital bed of his predecessor, John Ashcroft, to pressure him into reauthorizing a domestic surveillance program that a Justice Department review had determined was not legal. At the time, Mr. Ashcroft was in intensive care recovering from emergency gall bladder surgery.

Mr. Comey told a vivid tale of receiving a phone call tipping him off to the planned visit, then racing to the hospital to intercept Mr. Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. He said he watched a weak Mr. Ashcroft raise his head off the pillow to rebuke Mr. Gonzales.

TV talk-show host Chris Matthews compared the story to a scene in “The Godfather,” when Al Pacino’s character races to the hospital to prevent his father from being assassinated.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, called it “one of the most astounding episodes in Department of Justice history, all the way back to the ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’ ”

That event occurred on October 20, 1973, when Mr. Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had subpoenaed the president in connection with Oval Office recordings revealed by the Watergate scandal. The move prompted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.

President Bush, who Mr. Comey said instructed him to bring the surveillance program into compliance with the law, refused last week to answer questions about the secret hospital visit.

“There’s a lot of speculation about what happened and what didn’t happen. I’m not going to talk about it,” Mr. Bush said.

But Mr. Comey’s story drew attention and gained momentum even during a week full of big news: the resignations of Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, a Republican presidential debate and a deal on immigration reform.

By the end of the week, two more Republican senators had called on Mr. Gonzales to resign, bringing the total number to five, and even senators who are strong allies of the president suggested the attorney general should step down.

Additionally, Mr. Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, announced they would introduce a resolution this week expressing no confidence in the attorney general.

“The bottom line is the only person, probably, in America who thinks Alberto Gonzales should stay as attorney general is George Bush,” Mr. Schumer said.

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