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The puppet master

A Times Editorial
Published June 11, 2007


There's a new twist in the bizarre story of Alberto Gonzales and Andy Card, two top White House officials, rushing to the hospital bed of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. It appears Vice President Dick Cheney was personally directing the White House's desperate attempt to continue a program of warrantless domestic wiretapping over the objections of the Justice Department.

James Comey, the former deputy attorney general, offered riveting testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month about a Hollywood-style race to Ashcroft's hospital room, where he was recovering from gallbladder surgery. Comey, who had been made acting attorney general during Ashcroft's incapacitation, refused to reauthorize the National Security Agency's secret surveillance program. A Justice Department internal analysis found the program illegal.

But Gonzales, who was then White House counsel, and then-chief of staff Card, sought an end-run around Comey, by appealing to Ashcroft directly. Comey said he rushed to be at the hospital before Gonzales and Card arrived. With Comey as a witness, an ailing Ashcroft refused to go along with the White House request.

In response to written questions from Senate committee members, Comey disclosed that Cheney was personally involved in pushing to retain the wiretapping program. In a meeting the day before the sickbed raid, Cheney made it clear to Comey and other Justice Department officials that he did not agree with the department's objections. Thereafter, according to Comey, Cheney blocked the promotion of Patrick Philbin, a senior department lawyer, because he had been involved in the negative evaluation of the NSA program.

Comey also said that even after the department refused to sign off on the program's legality, it continued for "approximately several weeks" until the White House responded to a threat by eight high-ranking Justice Department officials that they would quit en masse if changes weren't made.

A disregard for the limits of executive power has been a hallmark of Cheney's tenure. He has been a primary architect of the "unitary executive" theory, in which the president claims that he is not subject to constraints by Congress and the courts. It is also no surprise that Cheney acted vindictively against an attorney who offered an independent legal judgment rather than one skewed by political considerations. The U.S. attorney firing scandal is another example of this administration's effort to politicize the nation's top law enforcement agency.

We still don't know the full story behind the NSA eavesdropping program. However, we now know that were it not for Comey, Ashcroft and others who were willing to put their integrity before their careers, the vice president might have succeeded in tossing out safeguards that even the Bush Justice Department said were needed.

[Last modified June 10, 2007, 23:45:14]

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