WASHINGTON -- President Bush intervened in March 2004 to avert a crisis over the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program after Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and other senior Justice Department aides all threatened to resign, a former deputy attorney general testified yesterday.
Bush quelled the revolt over the program's legality by allowing it to continue without Justice Department approval, also directing Justice Department officials to take the necessary steps to bring it into compliance with the law, according to testimony by the former deputy attorney general, James B. Comey.
Although a conflict over the program had been disclosed previously, Comey provided a fuller account of the 48-hour drama, including, for the first time, Bush's role, the threatened resignations and a race as Comey hurried to Ashcroft's hospital bed to intercept White House officials, who were pushing for approval of the NSA program.
Describing the events as "the most difficult of my professional career," Comey appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of its inquiry into the firing of federal prosecutors and the role of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. Several lawmakers wanted to examine Gonzales' actions in the NSA matter, when he was White House counsel.
Comey, the former No. 2 official in the Justice Department, said the crisis began when he refused to sign a presidential order reauthorizing the program, which allowed monitoring of international telephone calls and e-mail of people inside the United States who were suspected of having terrorist ties.
He said he made his decision after the department's Office of Legal Counsel reviewed the program and concluded that it did not comply with the law.
At the time, Comey was acting attorney general because Ashcroft had been hospitalized for emergency gall bladder surgery.
Comey would not describe the rationale for his refusal to approve the program, citing its classified nature. The NSA program, which began soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and did not require court approval to listen in on the communications of Americans and others, provoked an outcry in Congress when it was disclosed in 2005.
Comey said that on the evening of March 10, 2004, Gonzales and Andrew H. Card Jr., then Bush's chief of staff, tried to bypass him by secretly visiting Ashcroft. Ashcroft was extremely ill and disoriented, Comey said, and his wife had forbidden any visitors.
Comey said that when a top aide to Ashcroft alerted him to the pending visit, he ordered his driver to rush him to George Washington Hospital with emergency lights flashing and a siren blaring, to intercept the pair. They sought Ashcroft's signature because authority for the program was to expire the next day.
Comey said he phoned Mueller, who agreed to meet him at the hospital. There, Comey said, he "literally ran up the stairs." At his request, Mueller ordered the FBI agents on Ashcroft's security detail not to evict Comey from the room if Gonzales and Card objected to his presence.
Comey said he arrived first in the darkened room, in time to brief Ashcroft, who he said seemed barely conscious. Before Ashcroft became ill, Comey said, the two men had talked and had agreed that the program should not be renewed.
When the White House officials appeared minutes later, Gonzales began to explain to Ashcroft why they were there. Comey said Ashcroft rose weakly from his hospital bed, but in strong and unequivocal terms, refused to approve the eavesdropping program.
Gonzales and Card quickly departed, but Comey said he soon got an angry phone call from Card, demanding that he come to the White House. Comey said he replied: "After what I just witnessed, I will not meet with you without a witness, and I intend that witness to be the solicitor-general of the United States."
Comey said he reached Theodore B. Olson, the solicitor-general, at a dinner party. At the White House session, which included Olson, Gonzales, Comey and Card, the four officials discussed the impasse.
Card expressed concern about mass resignations at the Justice Department, Comey said. He told the Senate panel he prepared a letter of resignation and that David Ayres, Ashcroft's chief of staff, asked him to delay delivering it so that Ashcroft could join him. Comey said Mueller was also prepared to quit.
The next morning, March 11, Comey went to the White House for a terrorism briefing. Afterward, he said, Bush took him aside for a private 15-minute meeting in the president's study.
At Comey's urging, Bush also met with Mueller, who emerged to inform Comey that the president had authorized the changes in the program sought by the Justice Department.
Comey said he signed the re-authorization "two or three weeks" later.