Conyers: FBI director notes prove Bush officials tried 'to goad a sick, medicated Ashcroft' to approve warrantless wiretapping
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Attorney General John Ashcroft was "feeble, barely articulate (and) clearly stressed" when then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card visited his hospital room to push for legal approval of a warrantless wiretap program approved by President Bush, according to newly released notes from FBI Director Robert Mueller.
The notes were released Thursday by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee that is investigating the legality of the warrantless wiretapping program. Mueller's notes of the March 10, 2004 incident outline a dispute between the Justice Department and the White House over the legality of a National Security Agency surveillance program.
"[Then deputy Attorney General James Comey] tells me Card and J. [Judge] Gonzales are on the way to hospital to see the AG, but that AG is in no condition to see them, much less make decisions to authorize continuation of the program," Mueller writes.
Comey previously testified to Conyers committee that Ashcroft had refused to approve the NSA warrantless wiretapping program before a 45-day deadline on a previous justification was to expire.
"Director Mueller's notes and recollections concerning the White House visit to the Attorney General's hospital bed confirm an attempt to goad a sick and heavily medicated Ashcroft to approve the warrantless surveillance program," Conyers said in a prepared statement.
Rep. Arthur Davis (D-AL) said, "Director Mueller's notes leave an unmistakable impression of a White House determined to do an end-around the constitution."
The notes confirm disputes within the administration over the warrantless wiretapping -- which became known as the Terrorist Surveillance Program after President Bush acknowledged its existence. Davis said Mueller's notes and his previous testimony are "at odds with the benign description the Attorney General provided under oath," and he promised the Judiciary Committee would continue to probe "whether Alberto Gonzales was truthful rather than misleading" in congressional testimony.
According to Mueller's notes, he was out to dinner with his family on March 10, 2004, when Deputy Attorney General James Comey called at 7:20 p.m. and informed him Gonzales and Card were on their way to the hospital where Ashcroft was recovering from surgery.
Mueller arrived at the George Washington University hospital 20 minutes later, but the White House officials had left by then.
"Comey tells me that they saw the AG (Ashcroft) and were told by the AG that he was in no condition to decide issues. ... The AG also told them that he was barred from obtaining the advice he needed on the program by the strict compartmentalization rules of the WH," Mueller wrote.
Conyers called the latter revelation "particularly disconcerting."
Mueller's notes show he attended meetings in Card's office the day before the hospital visit that included Gonzales and Vice President Dick Cheney, among other officials. The day after the visit, Card requested a meeting with Mueller that lasted 40 minutes, after which Mueller spoke to Gonzales and met with Comey. Notes on those meetings are redacted from the released documents, which were sent to the committee from the FBI.
"Unfortunately, this heavily redacted document raises far more questions than it answers. We intend to fully investigate this incident and the underlying subject matter that evoked such widespread distress within the Department and the FBI," Conyers said. "We will be seeking an unredacted copy of Director Mueller's notes covering meetings before and after the hospital visit and expect to receive information from several of the individuals mentioned in the document."