Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Smoking Gun

"Showdown With the Justice Department"

Alberto 'Abu' Gonzales has a lot to answer for. The Prosecutors' Purge scandal, NSA wiretapping, signing off on torture at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, the illegal use of National Security Letters by the FBI. In his position as White House Counsel, and later as the Attorney General of the United States, if anything stunk to high heaven in the Bush administration, it has had an intimate connection to 'Electrode Al.' (nickname courtesy of Jolly Roger at ReConstitution)

The latest story breaking today is from yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee testimony by James Comey, who was the Deputy Attorney General during John Ashcroft's tenure in that post, prior to Gone-zo assuming the job. There have been a lot of ugly stories associated with the BushCo™ manipulation of the Justice Department, but I think this one sinks to a new low. Desperate to have the Justice Department sign off on the infamous NSA wiretapping program, Gonzales and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card met with the gravely ill Ashcroft in the hospital to seek his signature approving the program.
From the New York Times:
"President Bush intervened in March 2004 to avert a crisis over the National Security Agency’s domestic eavesdropping program after Attorney General John Ashcroft, Director Robert S. Mueller III of the F.B.I. and other senior Justice Department aides all threatened to resign, a former deputy attorney general testified Tuesday..

..[Acting Attorney General James B.] Comey provided a fuller account of the 48-hour drama, including, for the first time, Mr. Bush’s role, the threatened resignations and a race as Mr. Comey hurried to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital sickbed to intercept White House officials, who were pushing for approval of the N.S.A. program.

Describing the events as “the most difficult of my professional career,” Mr. Comey appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of its inquiry into the dismissal of federal prosecutors and the role of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Several lawmakers wanted to examine Mr. Gonzales’s actions in the N.S.A. matter, when he was White House counsel, and cited them to buttress their case that he should resign.

Mr. Comey, the former No. 2 official in the Justice Department, said the crisis began when he refused to sign a presidential order reauthorizing the program, which allowed monitoring of international telephone calls and e-mail of people inside the United States who were suspected of having terrorist ties. He said he made his decision after the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, based on an extensive review, concluded that the program did not comply with the law.
Glenn Greenwald, who has been all over the NSA warantless wiretapping program since day one, raises some interesting points in his post today on the subject.
The overarching point here, as always, is that it is simply crystal clear that the President consciously and deliberately violated the law and committed multiple felonies by eavesdropping on Americans in violation of the law.

Recall that the only federal court to rule on this matter has concluded that the NSA program violated both federal law and the U.S. Constitution, and although that decision is being appealed by the Bush administration, they are relying largely on technical arguments to have it reversed (i.e., standing and "state secrets" arguments) and -- as has been true for the entire case -- are devoting very little efforts to arguing that the program was actually legal or constitutional.

Yet even once Bush knew that both Aschcroft and Comey believed the eavesdropping was illegal, he ordered it to continue anyway. As Anonymous Liberal wrote yesterday:
That's a rather stunning fact, and one that I wish at least a few mainstream journalists would attempt to grasp the significance of. The White House authorized a program that everyone of significance in the Justice Department had determined to be lacking any legal basis. They willfully violated the law.
Even The Washington Post Editorial Board -- long tepid, at best, concerning the NSA scandal -- recognizes that Comey has offered "an account of Bush administration lawlessness so shocking it would have been unbelievable coming from a less reputable source." And as I documented yesterday, these "shocking" revelations were long concealed due to Alberto Gonzales' patently false assurances that the testimony of Comey and Ashcroft -- which Democrats on the Senate Judiicary Committee sought last year -- would not "add to the discussion."
Yesterday he posted on the year-long effort by Gonzales to block Comey from testifying at all. No wonder!! This is as damaging a revelation as has come down the pike yet, and that is a high bar to pass in this administration.

The YouTube video (Courtesy of Politics TV, via TruthDig) of the testimony is riveting, to say the least. Comey describes a situation where several Bush political appointees, including Ashcroft, FBI director Robert Mueller, and Comey himself were all threatening to resign unless Bush modified his program to somehow bring it in line with the law. Perhaps the most compelling part of the testimony was when Andrew Card phoned Comey and asked him to come down for an interview about the incident in the White House. Comey's response was that he didn't think it appropriate to talk to Card 'after the behavior he had just seen' without a witness in the room, and that that witness should be the Solicitor General, Ted Olsen. And then there's the matter of Mueller instructing the FBI that Comey was not to be removed from Ashcroft's hospital room under any circumstances. As Greenwald points out, "Comey and Mueller were clearly both operating on the premise that Card and Gonzales were basically thugs."

Bottom line: Comey's story is a smoking gun, amply demonstrating not only that Bush was breaking the law (as ruled by Federal Court Judge Anna Diggs Taylor), but that he knew that he was breaking the law, based on the Justice Department's own analysis. That stinks to be sure, but what will grab the public's attention is the high drama of the confrontation between Comey and Gonzales (with Andrew Card) in Ashcroft's hospital room. No-one will be able to ignore the slimy actions of someone who would try to take advantage of a desperately ill man under heavy sedation to get their way. As Anonymous Liberal put it, “Comey’s testimony today reads like the script of a Hollywood movie."

I would so love to be a reporter in the White House scrum, and ask Tony Snow about this. After the usual response that there was nothing improper about this conduct, my follow-up question would be, "If this was really on the up-and-up, why didn't you just issue a press release on the matter at the time?"

A couple of points I haven't yet seen in any of the other blogs (hey, I have to contribute something original) - When Judge Diggs Taylor ruled the NSA program unconstitutional and CRIMINAL, her injunction that it be discontinued immediately was stayed on the grounds that the DOJ held the activities to be justified under the AUMF. It turns out this was not so. Shouldn't the administration be held in contempt of court for their deliberately misleading the judge on this matter?

And, as I've mentioned before - Gonzales doesn't seem to have noticed that his duties were supposed to have changed when he went from being White House Counsel to his current post as Attorney General. When you see how fervently he worked in his previous post to circumvent the law, it becomes obvious why Bush wanted him in the A.G. post. Could the nomination of Harriet Miers have been a red herring? All he (Rove?) would have had to do is plant the idea in a few Republican Senators' ears to voice opposition to her. Bush then withdrew her name and substituted Gonzo. As if he didn't want him there in the first place.

UPDATE: Crooks and Liars has this piece from Countdown with Jonathan Turley commenting about this. Says Turley,
“I don’t know of a more clear potential charge of impeachment within the modern presidency.”
The FISA laws were enacted specifically to restrict a President from unwarranted spying on Americans, so I don't see how anyone can argue that any 'inherent' (ie unwritten) powers under the Constitution allow him to break the law. Another interesting point that Turley, a constitutional scholar, brings up. The Republican-dominated Congress that has been giving Bush a pass through all this has not only the authority, but also the RESPONSIBILITY of oversight when the administration is seen to be breaking the law. Republican asshats like ex-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Arlen Specter are guilty of a serious breach of their duties and OBLIGATIONS under the constitution.

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