Rushing to boss' bedside, a straight arrow flies true

Published May 20, 2007

The story read as if it were ripped from a Tom Clancy thriller: A heroic Justice Department official races to the hospital, thwarting the sinister government plot to exploit his ailing, anesthesia-addled boss.

Like many Americans, I was riveted by the account former Deputy Attorney General James Comey gave a Senate panel last week about his attempt to stop White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and President Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card Jr., from reauthorizing Bush's domestic surveillance system in 2004.

So determined were Gonzales and Card to win approval for their legally dubious program, they were prepared to rouse then-Attorney General John Ashcroft from his postsurgery haze and demand he overrule Comey, the man he picked to oversee the Justice Department in his absence.

The story, told in gripping detail by Comey, touched off a furor and added strength to the voices calling for Gonzales' resignation as attorney general. But I wasn't surprised to see Comey in the middle of a media frenzy. He's been making headlines for years.

I met Comey in 1997, after he took over as head of the Richmond division of the U.S. Attorney's office in the Eastern District of Virginia. At the time, I was a general assignment reporter with the Richmond Times-Dispatch and was frequently called upon to help with coverage of federal courts.

Comey was one of the most interesting and dynamic public officials in our sleepy Southern town. He was also one of the few who actively courted the press, calling reporters to alert them to high-profile arrests or provide juicy, off-the-record details about investigations.

He was a law-and-order Republican and, at 6 foot 8 inches, an imposing figure. But Comey was also warm and personable, a doting father of five and an avid bicyclist.

Shortly after arriving in Richmond, he helped create a controversial initiative called Project Exile aimed at getting guns off the streets.

Under the program, routine firearm possession charges typically sent to state court were instead transferred to the federal system, where offenders faced automatic five-year prison sentences.

Exile drew accolades in Richmond, which was perennially named a murder capital in the 1990s. But it was denounced by the National Rifle Association. Love it or hate it, the program raised Comey's profile, and in 2001 he was named the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. He continued to attract attention, especially after his office took aim at the doyenne of domesticity, Martha Stewart.

The decision to prosecute Stewart for making false statements about a stock sale drew criticism from Stewart's fans and legal analysts alike. Some accused Comey of misogyny. Others said he was chasing headlines. In a New York Times op-ed, William Safire accused Comey of twisting the law to make an example out of a celebrity.

"In doing justice, righteous ends don't justify unscrupulous means, " Safire wrote.

But Comey's star continued to rise and he was tapped in 2003 to go to Washington.

It was here that Comey ran into the conflict he called "the most difficult of my professional career."

On March 9, 2004, Ashcroft underwent gallbladder surgery after a severe case of pancreatitis. The next day, Comey refused to sign off on a warrantless eavesdropping program that allowed the National Security Agency to monitor e-mails and telephone calls between the United States and overseas.

After a review, the Justice Department raised questions about its legality. Ashcroft was briefed on the findings and agreed that changes were needed, Comey said.

That night, Comey received an urgent phone call from Ashcroft's chief of staff. Ashcroft's wife had called him because Card and Gonzales were on their way to the hospital, ignoring her request for no visitors. Comey raced to George Washington University Hospital, beating Gonzales and Card by a few minutes. The pair asked Ashcroft to approve the order, but he rebuffed their request.

"I was angry, " Comey testified. "I had just witnessed 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." In the end, the White House simply renewed the wiretapping program without Justice Department approval.

Bush later gave his support to making changes in the program, Comey said. But the administration never disclosed what those changes were.

Comey's story drew immediate outrage. Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska demanded Gonzales' resignation. The ACLU asked the White House to turn over all documents related to the wiretapping program. Meanwhile, Comey is being heralded as the last honest man in Washington.

Comey resigned his Justice Department position in August 2006 and is now general counsel and senior vice president of Lockheed Martin.

I'm sure life in the private sector is far more relaxing - and lucrative - than government service. But I'll be watching to see what Comey does next. I have a feeling he won't be out of the limelight for long. He may be a straight arrow, but he's one who knows how to aim directly at the media's heart.