The Saturday Massacre and That Visit to Aschroft’s Hospital Room
Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas takes us back to the Watergate coverup:
the Justice Department is supposed to stand for the rule of law – to be the enforcer of the laws of the United States, not the place presidents go to get around the law. Independence is an important tradition in the columned limestone building on Constitution Avenue. It is worth remembering that before Richard Nixon could find someone at the Justice Department willing to fire the Watergate special prosecutor in 1973, he had to accept the resignations of the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, and the deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus. (Solicitor General Robert Bork finally did the deed.)
Robert Bork indeed was willing to sell out principles – just as Alberto Gonzales has been. But just as credit went to Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus back then, credit should go to John Aschroft and James Comey:
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.
The story continues discussing the testimony of Monica Goodling but then turns on John Yoo:
The trouble began shortly after 9/11, when the administration began looking for tough measures to head off another terrorist attack. The Justice Department has a relatively obscure department known as the Office of Legal Counsel. Typically staffed by brilliant young lawyers, the OLC opines on the legality and constitutionality of administration policies. One of the stars of OLC was a cocky young lawyer named John Yoo. After 9/11, Yoo began writing opinions giving the administration exceptional latitude to fight terrorism. Yoo’s memos were used to justify both the secret eavesdropping program, which for the first time allowed the government to listen in on American citizens without obtaining a court warrant, and aggressive interrogation methods, like water boarding. While easygoing and congenial on the surface, Yoo was a fierce bureaucratic infighter with a penchant for circumventing his superiors. Though all the top officials at Justice were conservative Republicans, Yoo seemed to regard them as political dolts. “He had this calm, unruffled, almost ‘devil may care’ attitude when he talked about issues that were extraordinarily sensitive,” recalled a former Justice Department official. “He would sort of come flying by your office and say things like, ‘We’ve done a little analysis, it’s no big deal’.” Only later, the official said, would he discover that Yoo had sent the White House an opinion authorizing some sweeping new – and constitutionally dubious – program. Yoo was increasingly seen as a rogue operator inside the Justice Department. Officials were suspicious of his ties to David Addington, counsel to Vice President Cheney. The vice president’s office took a hard-line view that the executive branch should not be trammeled in the war on terror by legislators and bureaucrats. Yoo was “out of control,” recalled a former Ashcroft aide. Almost without exception, this conflict stayed behind closed doors. (Yoo declined to respond on the record, but he has told others that Ashcroft was fully briefed by him and approved his memos, and that his critics are now engaged in creative “Monday-morning quarterbacking.”) The bad feelings seemed to come to a head in 2003, when there was a vacancy to head OLC. At the White House, Gonzales wanted Yoo, and was so insistent that he took the matter to Bush. According to the former Ashcroft aide who did not want to openly discuss matters involving the president, Bush was surprised to learn that Ashcroft opposed Yoo as a renegade. A compromise was reached: a conservative lawyer named Jack Goldsmith was put in charge of OLC. But the fight was really just beginning. Carefully reviewing Yoo’s carte blanche memos, Goldsmith became convinced that the Justice Department had been signing off on memos approving initiatives, like wiretapping and water boarding, that were not legally supportable. Goldsmith took the matter to Ashcroft’s deputy, Comey, and to Patrick Philbin, Comey’s No. 2. Philbin’s sterling conservative legal résumé tracked Yoo’s – they had both clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas at the U.S. Supreme Court. But Philbin and Goldsmith were adamant. The Justice Department could no longer sign off on the wiretapping program, which had been expanded to wiretap more U.S. residents. “This was not ideological,” recalled a former Ashcroft aide. “This was about the difference between pushing the limits to the edge of the line and crossing the line.”
How involved was President Bush in supporting Yoo’s agenda? This story says it is not clear. What is clear is that this battle between the Aschroft camp that wanted Justice to actually do its job and the Gonzales that wanted to give King George free reign is why we ended up with Gonzales as Attorney General. We had the common sense to force the resignations of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon over 30 years ago. So why do Dick Cheney and George Bush still hold their positions of power?