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Ex-Justice Official: Spy Plan Sparked Threats to Quit

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this report.

ARI SHAPIRO: This is the first time former Deputy Attorney General James Comey has spoken publicly about what he called the most difficult time in his professional life. It started soon after Comey and Attorney General John Ashcroft decided that the president's secret domestic surveillance program was not legal. They agreed Ashcroft would not sign off on it. Hours later, Ashcroft was hit with acute pancreatitis.

JAMES COMEY: The attorney general was taken that very afternoon to George Washington Hospital, where he went into intensive care and remained there for over a week. And I became the acting attorney general.

SHAPIRO: Days later, Comey told the White House he would not reauthorize the program. Alberto Gonzales, who was then White House counsel, and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card went to Ashcroft's hospital room. Comey got there first.

COMEY: I was concerned that given how ill I knew the attorney general was that there might be an effort to ask him to overrule me when he was in no condition to do that.

SHAPIRO: Minutes after Comey arrived, Gonzales and Card entered the room with a paper for Ashcroft to sign.

COMEY: He lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact, which stunned me - drawn from the hour-long meeting we had had a week earlier - and then laid his head back down the pillow, seemed spent, and said to them but that doesn't matter because I'm not the attorney general.

SHAPIRO: Gonzales and Card left the room without acknowledging Comey.

COMEY: I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me.

SHAPIRO: The next day...

COMEY: The program was reauthorized without us, without a signature from the Department of Justice attesting as to its legality. And I prepared a letter of resignation, intending to resign the next day, Friday, March the 12th.

SHAPIRO: Comey said others at the Justice Department were prepared to resign too: office heads, chiefs of staff, and even FBI Director Robert Mueller. The FBI yesterday would not comment. Ashcroft's chief of staff begged Comey to wait a few days until Ashcroft was well enough to resign with everyone else. In the end, no one resigned that week. Comey and Mueller went to the White House.

COMEY: I met with the president first; then Director Mueller did. And it was Director Mueller who carried to me the president's direction to do what the Department of Justice thinks is right to get this where the department believes it ought to be.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department changed the program and it went ahead. The White House would not comment on internal deliberations. After Comey told his story, the committee's top Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, compared the incident to another famous Justice Department crisis from the Nixon years.

ARLEN SPECTER: It has some characteristics of the Saturday Night Massacre, when other officials stood up and they had to be fired.

SHAPIRO: Almost all of the Justice Department officials involved in the dispute over the spying program have left government work; so has White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. Alberto Gonzales is now Attorney General.

SPECTER: It is hard to say how the Department of Justice can function and perform its important duties with Mr. Gonzales remaining where he is.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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