So consider these scenes from March 2004, described by two former top Justice officials who, like other ex-officials interviewed by NEWSWEEK, did not wish to be identified discussing sensitive internal matters. Attorney General John Ashcroft is really sick. About to give a press conference in Virginia, he is stricken with pain so severe he has to lie down on the floor. Taken to the hospital for an emergency gallbladder operation, he hallucinates under medication as he lies, near death, in intensive care. On the night after his operation, he has two visitors: White House chief of staff Andrew Card and presidential counsel Alberto Gonzales. As described in public testimony, they want Ashcroft to sign a document authorizing the government's top-secret eavesdropping program to go on. The attorney general, who thinks the program is illegal, refuses.
Back at the Justice Department, there is an equally extraordinary scene. Appalled by the White House's heavy-handed attempt to coerce the gravely ill attorney general, virtually the entire top leadership of the Justice Department is threatening to resign.
The group includes the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum and the chief of the Criminal Division, Chris Wray. Some of them gather in the conference room of Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who describes Ashcroft's bravely turning away the president's men from his hospital bed. The mood that night in the conference room was tense—and sober. "This was a showdown," says a former senior Justice Department official who was there. "Everybody understood the choice they were making and the gravity of the situation. Everybody knew what the stakes were." A different source estimated that as many as 30 top DOJ officials would have resigned. Read more...
The more we learn about this story the uglier it gets.
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