Friday, August 17, 2007

More Details on the "Sickbed Visit" Released to House Judiciary Committee

Notes taken by Director Robert S. Mueller III of the F.B.I. say that Attorney General John Ashcroft was "barely articulate," "feeble" and "clearly stressed" shortly after a hospital-room meeting in March 2004 in which two top White House aides tried to persuade him to sign an extension for eavesdropping on Americans without warrants.

Mr. Mueller's notes, based on a visit to Mr. Ashcroft's room and released Thursday by the House Judiciary Committee, provide a fuller picture of the events surrounding a March 10, 2004, confrontation over the surveillance program. They go beyond the account that Mr. Mueller gave the committee in July and reinforce an account by James B. Comey, the former deputy attorney general who testified in May.

In providing corroboration for Mr. Comey's version of events, Mr. Mueller's typewritten entries served to rebut the suggestion of some Bush administration officials who have privately dismissed Mr. Comey's account of the hospital standoff as an overwrought and one-sided description.

In terse shorthand, and despite heavy redactions, Mr. Mueller offered a glimpse of a tumultuous battle over the fate of the eavesdropping program. The notes list 26 meetings and phone conversations over three weeks — from March 1 to March 23 — during a fierce debate that almost led to mass resignations at the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr. Mueller was not at the meeting between Mr. Ashcroft and Alberto R. Gonzales, then the White House counsel, and Andrew H. Card Jr., then the White House chief of staff. He arrived at the hospital shortly afterward, and his entries include an account of his hospital-room meeting with Mr. Ashcroft as well as what he says Mr. Comey told him about the earlier confrontation.

The notes also reveal a series of meetings before and after March 10 between Mr. Mueller and other high-level administration officials. Some of those meetings were attended by Vice President Dick Cheney, suggesting that Mr. Cheney had played a central role in the controversy. Other regular participants included Mr. Gonzales and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then the director of the National Security Agency, which conducted the eavesdropping program.

The notes, which were turned over to the committee this week, are not dated. But they suggest that Mr. Mueller gradually became an intermediary between the White House and the Justice Department, meeting with each side almost hourly as the crisis deepened.

During their bedside meeting with Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card tried to obtain his signature on a presidential order reauthorizing the program. Mr. Comey, acting as attorney general during Mr. Ashcroft's hospitalization, had declined to sign the reauthorization, he said, because he believed that part of the program was illegal.

During the meeting, Mr. Ashcroft rebuffed the White House entreaties to sign the directive. Mr. Comey was present during that session, and Mr. Mueller's notes show that Mr. Comey then briefed the F.B.I. director on Mr. Ashcroft's remarks. Mr. Ashcroft, the notes said, reviewed his legal objections to the eavesdropping program and complained to Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card that he had been "barred from obtaining the advice he needed on the program by the strict compartmentalization rules of the WH," a reference to the extreme secrecy imposed by the White House.

After the meeting concluded without success, the Bush administration decided to proceed with the program anyway. But Comey, Mueller and half a dozen or so other Justice Department officials threatened to resign if it was not changed. The standoff was averted after President Bush agreed to make changes, Mueller and others have testified, but the changes have never been described.

FBI Director Mueller's notes (6-page PDF)

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