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It’s been almost four months since Attorney General Alberto Gonzales first came to the Hill and testified about his role in the controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys in 2006.
But instead of running out of steam as Gonzales stubbornly hangs on to his job, the investigation into what Democrats call the “politicization of the Justice Department” shows absolutely no signs of faltering on Capitol Hill.
In fact, after ex-Deputy Attorney General James Comey’s dramatic testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday morning, the probe instead may be gaining momentum.
In vivid, never-before-told detail, Comey recalled how then-White House counsel Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andy Card attempted to override his authority as acting attorney general by getting a hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign off on a much-debated program during a late-night hospital visit in March 2004.
Though Comey refused to identify the program, Senators referred to it as the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping initiative known as the “terrorist surveillance program.”
“This is a dysfunctional Department of Justice. It is being run like a political arm of the White House,” remarked an angry Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “The attorney general is doing an abysmal job.”
Panel member Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) described Comey as a “profile in courage” and questioned how Gonzales could possibly remain on the job after Comey’s tale.
Asked Tuesday for reaction to Comey’s testimony, a Justice spokesman said, “We cannot comment on internal discussions that may or may have not taken place concerning classified intelligence activities.”
Beyond that new subplot, Congressional Democrats now also want to know more about additional U.S. attorneys who may have been fired, such as Kansas City U.S. Attorney Todd Graves. Tuesday’s hearing was supposed to feature Graves’ replacement — former Justice civil rights lawyer Bradley Schlozman, who caused controversy in the department because of his enthusiastic pursuit of voter fraud.
And they are curious about an internal Justice investigation into former top Justice aide Monica Goodling’s involvement in allegedly illegally using political criteria in hiring lower-ranking prosecutors.
The House Judiciary Committee has granted Goodling, who had asserted her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, immunity and she is expected to testify sometime before Memorial Day.
Comey’s explosive testimony on Tuesday may open yet another front in the long- running probe. Because they couldn’t get all of the details publicly, Democrats announced they would pursue a closed-door briefing on the subject.
Democrats say that what is delaying getting to the bottom of the fired prosecutors matter is White House foot-dragging on allowing the testimony of two key witnesses: presidential adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.
The White House greenlighted their Hill testimony, but under strict conditions: They cannot testify under oath or with an official transcript, terms unacceptable to Democrats.
“Largely the question of how long the investigation goes on in many ways is up to the White House,” one Democratic aide said to a Senate Judiciary Committee member. “It’s crucial to hear from them.”
Hill aides were unsure what the next step would be in following up on Comey’s explosive remarks. Though the late-night hospital visit to Ashcroft in March 2004 has been previously reported, the story had not been told by Comey.
Named acting attorney general while Ashcroft was hospitalized with pancreatitis, Comey told the committee of receiving a phone call from Ashcroft’s chief of staff while headed home on the night of March 10. He was told that Ashcroft would soon be receiving some unexpected visitors, and he immediately rushed to the hospital.
Comey and two senior Justice Department staffers stood guard at Ashcroft’s bedside, where Ashcroft’s wife held her husband’s hand. Soon, Gonzales and Card arrived “carrying an envelope.” Comey understood that Gonzales and Card were attempting to get Ashcroft to sign off on a program that Ashcroft and Comey had previously agreed had no legal basis.
According to Comey, Ashcroft “stunned me” by lifting his head and “in very strong terms” defended his views of the matter and said authority to sign off was in Comey’s hands.
“I was very upset. I was angry. I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man,” Comey recalled. “I thought it was improper.”
Comey later attended a late-night meeting at the White House with Card and Gonzales in which they disagreed with the department’s position that the program was illegal, and decided to sign off on it — without Justice approval — anyway.
On March 11, Comey prepared a letter of resignation and testified that Ashcroft, Ashcroft’s chief of staff and Comey’s own chief of staff also were prepared to resign.
The next day, Comey said he and FBI Director Robert Mueller, who also was at the hospital that night, went to the White House to give a regular briefing to President Bush. Afterward, they each met privately with the president, who conveyed that they should do what they thought was right. Under his guidance, the program was altered — though Comey wouldn’t specify how — in order to comply with the law.
Comey, who is now general counsel at Lockheed Martin, remained deputy attorney general for another year and a half until resigning in August 2005.