Former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller both threatened to resign in 2004 over concerns with a domestic spying program backed by then-White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, Mr. Ashcroft’s former deputy said today.
President Bush, however, overruled Mr. Gonzales and directed the Justice Department to change the program, said James B. Comey, the former deputy attorney general who resigned in 2005.
Mr. Comey’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee renewed calls from members of Congress for Mr. Gonzales, now the attorney general, to resign.
Mr. Comey gave a riveting, detailed account of a visit to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital bed by Mr. Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card on Wednesday, March 10, 2004.
Mr. Ashcroft had developed pancreatitis on Thursday, March 4, 2004, and was placed in intensive care. Mr. Comey, who was made acting attorney general, refused to sign off on a reauthorization of the spying program, which was enacted after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks but required reauthorization every 45 days.
Mr. Comey said that Mr. Ashcroft agreed that their reassessment of certain provisions in the program found that the program’s lawfulness was in question.
Mr. Comey said that when Mr. Gonzales tried to pressure a semi-coherent Mr. Ashcroft into approving the warrantless eavesdropping program, Mr. Ashcroft told Mr. Gonzales he would not.
“He lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact, which stunned me,” Mr. Comey said.
Mr. Ashcroft then pointed at Mr. Comey, who was in the room, and said that Mr. Comey was the attorney general.
Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card “did not acknowledge me,” Mr. Comey said. “They turned and walked from the room.”
Mr. Comey said he was angered by “an effort to take advantage of a very sick man, who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me.”
Mr. Ashcroft declined to comment for this story, and Mr. Card could not be reached.
The Justice Department said they could not “comment on internal discussions that may or may have not taken place concerning classified intelligence activities.”
White House spokesman Tony Snow said he was “not going to talk about old conversations” or “splashy testimony on Capitol Hill.”
But Sen. Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, said the incident “crystallized Mr. Gonzales’s view about the rule of law, that he holds it in minimum low regard.”
“It’s hard to understand, after hearing this story, how Attorney General Gonzales could remain as attorney general,” Mr. Schumer said.
Mr. Gonzales has been under pressure for two months to resign because of how he handled the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year.
Mr. Gonzales said today at the National Press Club that his job is in the hands of President Bush.
“I make decisions about the people that work for me. The president makes the decisions about the people that work for him. He has to make that call,” Mr. Gonzales said.
Mr. Snow said Mr. Gonzales is “going to continue, he’s going to continue. We have faith in him.”
Mr. Gonzales, in a new twist, blamed Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, who yesterday announced his resignation, for the firings.
“At the end of the day, the recommendation reflected the views of the deputy attorney general. He signed off on the names,” Mr. Gonzales said.
The visit by Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital room had been reported in the past, but not publicly confirmed. And Mr. Comey’s details were the first to emerge about the incident.
Mr. Comey said he told his security detail to rush him to the hospital when he was tipped off about the visit, and arrived there before Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card. He also called FBI Director Robert Mueller, who headed for the hospital.
Mr. Mueller told FBI agents in Mr. Comey’s detail “not to allow me to be removed from the room under any circumstances,” Mr. Comey said.
The day after the visit, the White House moved ahead with the program without Justice Department approval, and Mr. Comey prepared his resignation.
He said that Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller were also both prepared to resign. An FBI spokesman said they do not discuss “private conversations between the director and others.”
But Mr. Bush, Mr. Comey said, met with both him and Mr. Mueller on Friday, March 12, and told them to change the program to bring it into compliance with the law.