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Cheney Blocks DOJ Official's Promotion: Document

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We have new details today about a dramatic hospital room confrontation between the Justice Department and the White House over the president's domestic spying program. It happened three years ago. Sometime later, the vice president's office barred one of the Justice officials involved in that standoff from being promoted.

NPR's justice reporter Ari Shapiro is here to explain. Good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, that's according to a former Justice Department official at the center of this scandal. Remind us what the standoff was all about.

SHAPIRO: Right. The official is James Comey, who was deputy attorney general in President Bush's first term. And he had already described this hospital confrontation where Attorney General John Ashcroft was sick, Comey was the acting attorney general.

He notified the White House that the Justice Department was not going to reauthorize the domestic spying program because they didn't think it was legal. So the White House sent Chief of Staff Andy Card and the man who was then White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, who's now attorney general, to confront Ashcroft in his hospital room, asked him to override Comey. Ashcroft refused. And this story came out at a dramatic hearing where Comey testified.

The new information we're getting today is from answers to written questions that Comey submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee late last night.

MONTAGNE: And tell us about the man whom the vice president's office denied promotion after this confrontation.

SHAPIRO: His name's Patrick Philbin. He was associate deputy attorney general and so he worked for Comey. He was one of the people who started the legal review of the spying program that concluded the program was illegal. Philbin was in the hospital room that night, March 10, 2004.

Comey had already testified that Philbin was blocked for a promotion because of this event. But what's new is this. Comey says in these written answers to questions Mr. Philbin was considered for principal deputy solicitor general; that's the deputy to the man who represents the federal government before the Supreme Court. And Comey says it was my understanding that the vice president's office blocked that appointment.

Then he gets more specific. He says, I understood that someone at the White House communicated to Attorney General Gonzales that the vice president would oppose the appointment if the attorney general pursued the matter. The attorney general chose not to pursue it.

MONTAGNE: And I gather these documents describe a meeting at the White House the night before the hospital standoff.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. This is the first time we've heard anything about this meeting. It took place March 9, 2004. And it was a very exclusive guest list. There were three people from the Justice Department, including Comey and Philbin. Then from the White House there was counsel Gonzales, Chief of Staff Card; there was David Addington, who was counsel to the vice president. And most importantly, Vice President Dick Cheney himself was at this meeting.

MONTAGNE: And what happened?

SHAPIRO: Well, Comey says this is where he, as acting attorney general, told the vice president that the Justice Department would not reauthorize the spying program. He describes that meeting as a culmination of ongoing dialogue between the Justice Department and the White House.

MONTAGNE: Now, why is this important?

SHAPIRO: Well, it puts not just high-level staffers but the vice president himself at the center of this. Many people have been dumbfounded that Gonzales and Card tried to get a sick John Ashcroft to override Comey. Comey has suggested that it may have been the president who sent them to the hospital room that day. President Bush won't say whether it was him or not.

This meeting shows for the first time that not only top White House aides but the vice president himself dealt with Comey directly about this matter, and then later punished one of the Justice officials involved in it.

MONTAGNE: So what is left to know about this, the unanswered questions?

SHAPIRO: Well, there are two big questions. One is who was it that sent Gonzales and Card to the hospital room that night in March? Was it President Bush? Was it Vice President Cheney? Was it someone else altogether?

And then the second big unanswered question is, what did this program look like that the Justice Department thought was illegal in the first place? This was a program that had been in place for a couple of years. President Bush has publicly described what the program looked like after the Justice Department changed it after the standoff so that they were convinced the program was legal.

But we still don't know what this program looked like originally that James Comey, Patrick Philbin, and even John Ashcroft objected to.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR Justice reporter Ari Shapiro. 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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