Gonzales as White House Heavy

17:51 Wed 16 May 2007. Updated: 14:03 18 May 2007
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I can’t get over the testimony James Comey gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, specifically that White House political operatives (one of whom is now the Attorney General of the United States) attempted to do an end-run around an acting Attorney General by pressuring a recovering post-gall-bladder-operation John Ashcroft into signing documents (Ashcroft refused).

There’s more than that. The pressure was being applied to get the Department of Justice to certify the legality of some domestic surveillance program (probably the NSA’s “terrorist surveillance” one, but not necessarily), which the DoJ was unwilling to do for some reason. The program needed to be re-certified regularly, and for reasons that aren’t made clear, the DoJ refused to re-certify the program as it was when one of the certification deadlines (11 March 2004) was approaching. This is John Ashcroft‘s Department of Justice, and he never had a reputation as a committed defender of civil liberties, so if he and his DoJ are refusing to re-certify despite tremendous pressure from the White House, something very bad was going on. Something this rather conservative DoJ thought was illegal.

Furthermore, the White House was going to simply continue without this certification. The DoJ’s refusing to certify the legality of a program is almost the same as saying that they think it’s illegal, and the DoJ thinking that something is illegal probably carries some significance. But the President continued without this certification anyway—even though the President apparently has the right to issue that kind of certificate of legality. But allegedly, if he issued that in this case a large number of DoJ highups were going to resign in protest.

They almost resigned anyway, and forced some compromise that let the DoJ highups re-certify the program in good faith. But nobody is talking about what that was. The best guess I’ve seen is that the surveillance program was casting a very wide net, so wide that even Ashcroft felt it was abusive. Given the partisan ruthlessness of the White House, they were probably going after political opponents (even more than they’re doing anyway). And the White House didn’t care that the program was illegal without the certification—other political pressures pushed them to compromise.

The Director of the FBI, Mueller, was involved in this as well, and why that is is unclear. It’s possible that his involvement in the negotiations suggests FBI (rather than just NSA) involvement in the surveillance program, which in turn suggests that it (or some part of it) was entirely focused on the domestic sphere.

The opinion that Mueller and Comey have of the White House people involved—Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales—is made entirely apparent by the fact that Comey, hearing that Ashcroft is going to get a hospital visit, runs (literally runs) up the hospital stairs to get to Ashcroft first, and that he and Mueller have Mueller order Comey’s security detail not to let Comey leave Ashcroft’s room under any circumstances. Clearly, they’re worried that if the political ops are left alone with the post-surgery Ashcroft, they will extract a signature from him. That’s quite a statement about what they think of these people—and, again, Gonzales is now the Attorney General, supposedly protecting the rule of law in this country, an utterly laughable idea.

Finally, note that in 2006 Gonzales said that there wasn’t any serious high-level disagreement about the program, so either he was lying (under oath, i.e. perjury), or there are multiple domestic spying programs going on.

So: the White House was doing something so objectionable that John Ashcroft refused to certify its legality, they were going to keep doing it even when they were basically told it was illegal, one of the people responsible for that decision is now Attorney General, and there may be yet more programs in place but unknown (actually, regardless of whether or not Gonzales was committing perjury, I think it likely that there are a lot more secret programs put in place by this administration that are likely illegal).

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