The White House demanded in 2004 that the Justice Department approve a secret national security program without allowing the ailing attorney general, “feeble, barely articulate, clearly stressed,” to discuss the matter with top advisers, according to the FBI director’s personal notes.
The partially censored notes from FBI chief Robert S. Mueller, dated March 12, 2004, describe a distraught and feeble Attorney General John Ashcroft in his hospital room just moments after being visited by then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Andy Card, the president’s chief of staff at the time.
Mueller’s account backs up earlier descriptions of the dispute over whether to continue the program despite Justice Department concerns about its legality.
Last month, Mueller told a House committee that the clash was about the government’s warrantless wiretapping; Gonzales and the White House denied that and said it was about other intelligence activities.
“Saw AG,” Mueller wrote in his timed log of the events on the evening of March 10, 2004. “Janet Ashcroft in the room. AG is feeble, barely articulate, clearly stressed.” Ashcroft was in the hospital with pancreatitis.
'Barred for obtaining advice'
Before seeing Ashcroft, Mueller met with then-Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey at the hospital about 7:40 p.m., the notes indicate. Comey said Ashcroft told Card and Gonzales that he would not approve the classified terrorist surveillance program, which was set to expire the next day.
“The AG then reviewed for them the legal concerns relating to the program,” Mueller’s notes show. “The AG also told them that he was barred from obtaining the advice he needed on the program by the strict compartmentalization rules of the WH.”
Gonzales became attorney general less than a year later.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Thursday that Ashcroft was fully briefed on the program, but could not discuss it with advisers who were not. Fratto declined further comment.
The notes were released by the House Judiciary Committee, which had asked Mueller to hand them over when he testified in late July. The committee chairman, Rep. John Conyers, said the notes prove the White House tried to strong-arm the ailing Ashcroft.
“Particularly disconcerting is the new revelation that the White House sought Mr. Ashcroft’s authorization for the surveillance program, yet refused to let him seek the advice he needed on the program,” Conyers, D-Mich., said in a statement.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department, said Thursday he wants an internal investigation into whether Gonzales lied to or deliberately misled Congress about the 2004 dispute and its cause.
Notes detail high-level meetings
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., also asked the Justice Department’s inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, to examine whether Gonzales gave inaccurate sworn testimony about the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year.
“Consistent with your jurisdiction, please do not limit your inquiry to whether or not the attorney general has committed any criminal violations,” Leahy wrote Fine. “Rather, I ask that you look into whether the attorney general, in the course of his testimony, engaged in any misconduct, engaged in conduct inappropriate for a cabinet officer and the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, or violated any duty.”
Fine’s spokesman, Bill Blier, said he was aware of Leahy’s letter, but he declined further comment. A Justice Department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mueller’s notes detail parts of 10 days worth of high-level meetings with senior White House and department officials about the counterterrorism program.
One meeting, on March 12, 2004, was with Bush. At least three included Vice President Dick Cheney. Details of the discussion with Bush, in a room off the Oval Office, were entirely blacked out in the notes released Thursday.
Ashcroft bars further visitors
Additionally, they show several phone calls between Mueller and Gonzales, including one call to Mueller at home.
On the night of the March 10 confrontation, the notes show, Mueller rushed to the hospital from a dinner with his wife and daughter. The director arrived several minutes after Card and Gonzales left.
At that point, Comey asked Mueller to tell the FBI agents detailed to protect Ashcroft “that no visitors, other than family, were to be allowed to see the AG without my consent.”
“I so informed the detail,” Mueller wrote.
Comey told senators this year that he and Mueller threatened to quit if the White House overruled the Justice Department. Mueller has said he does not dispute Comey’s account of the situation.
As it happened, the White House did move ahead with the program for several weeks without the department’s approval.
Neither Comey nor Mueller resigned, however, because of the bombings in Spain the day after the hospital confrontation. Changes soon after to the program satisfied the department.