Ex-Gonzales no. 2 describes boss's attempted power grab
Michael Roston
Published: Thursday June 7, 2007
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The former Deputy Attorney General to John Ashcroft and later Alberto Gonzales described an attempt by the current, embattled Attorney General to centralize power within his office as he began his term at the Justice Department.

James Comey, who served as Deputy Attorney General from 2003 through 2005, described Gonzales' plan to reduce the independence of Comey's office when he became the Attorney General at the beginning of President George W. Bush's second term in office. The plan was presented to him by Kyle Sampson, the ex-Chief of Staff to Gonzales.

"Mr. Sampson explained to me a vision for the operation of the Attorney General’s office and the Office of the Deputy Attorney General that would involve operating those respective staffs as essentially one staff," Comey wrote in responses to questions for the record submitted by members of the House Judiciary Committee. The responses were sent to RAW STORY.

Comey went on to explain how Gonzales's plan to merge his office with Comey's would have eliminated a layer of oversight on the Attorney General's decision-making.

"I think such an arrangement risks elimination of the separate vetting and advice function of the DAG and his or her staff. There is great value in having that office – called ODAG -- available to make decisions that need not reach the Attorney General or to review and advise on matters headed to the Attorney General for decision," the former top government attorney wrote. "The risk inherent in combining the staffs is that the separate review and advice function is lost, which would not be in the interest of the Attorney General or the Department."

The full answers to questions for the record can be downloaded at this link.

Comey's statement came to light after apparently contradictory remarks offered by Attorney General Gonzales about the role of Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty in the firing of the 8 US Attorneys.

"Looking back, things that I would have done differently? I think I would have had the deputy attorney general more involved, directly involved," Gonzales said in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April.

But in a May 15 press conference, Gonzales appeared to reverse himself and pin most of the responsibility for the firing of the US Attorneys on McNulty.

"The one person that I would care about would be the views of the deputy attorney general, because the deputy attorney general is the direct supervisor of the United States attorneys. And in this particular case, Mr. McNulty was a former colleague of all of these United States attorneys, and so he would probably know better than anyone else about the performance and the qualifications of these -- of our United States attorney community," Gonzales said.

He went on, "My understanding was was that Mr. Sampson's recommendations reflected a consensus view of the senior leadership of the department, in particular the deputy attorney general."

Comey was answering questions that were prompted by an account in a May 20 edition of US News that described the effort to merge his office with Gonzales's.

"Soon after Gonzales became attorney general, his then chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, told Comey that Gonzales's 'vision' was to merge the deputy's office with Gonzales's own office," wrote Chitra Ragavan.

Raghavan quoted Comey as saying that he opposed the move.

"You may want to try that with the next deputy attorney general. But it's not going to work with me," he reportedly told Gonzales's ex-Chief of Staff Sampson.

Comey also addressed questions about the hospital room visit of Attorney General Ashcroft in 2004 by then-White House Counsel Gonzales to sign off on the legality of a domestic spying program operated by the National Security Agency.

He told House investigators that while John Ashcroft's wife was in the room for the discussion, and did not have a security clearance, he didn't know if any classified information had been discussed.

"I did not discuss classified information," he said. "I do not recall whether Mr. Gonzales mentioned any aspects of the matter that would be considered classified, including the name of the program – which was itself classified, as I recall – when addressing Mr. Ashcroft."

Comey also noted that Ashcroft's hospital room had not been cleared as a secure location where classified subjects could be discussed.