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Aide: Sick Ashcroft pressed to approve domestic spying

Story Highlights

• White House pressed hospitalized Ashcroft to OK plan, but he objected
• Former aide described visit as "an effort to take advantage of a very sick man"
• Deputy Attorney General Comey said he considered resigning over program
From Kevin Bohn
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey disclosed new information Tuesday concerning attempts by the White House to get Justice Department approval for the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program.

Comey also said he had considered resigning after disagreements about the surveillance program.

Calling it "the most difficult time in my period of life," Comey discussed publicly for the first time a hospital visit then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card and then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales made to Attorney General John Ashcroft on March 10, 2004. (Watch Comey describe Ashcroft's response during the hospital visit Video)

Ashcroft had become sick the week before, and Comey had been designated the acting attorney general.

Comey refused to say publicly that the White House officials came to the hospital to discuss the NSA program. However, government officials previously confirmed to CNN that Comey had "vigorously opposed" aspects of the surveillance program and refused to sign off on its continued use, prompting Card and Gonzales to make the hospital visit.

Comey's revelations came before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of its investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

In his testimony Tuesday, Comey recounted Ashcroft's wife calling a Justice Department official that night informing her Card and Gonzales were on their way to see Ashcroft. She had banned all outside phone calls and visitors, Comey said.

He immediately headed to the hospital and soon after he got there, the White House officials entered. He said Ashcroft, who had been weak from gall bladder surgery, "very strongly expressed himself" regarding his objections to a classified program, but added that his views didn't matter because he was, temporarily, not the attorney general.

'An effort to take advantage of a very sick man'

Comey said Card and Gonzales then left the hospital room without acknowledging him.

"I was very upset. I was angry. I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me. I thought he had conducted himself -- and I said to the attorney general -- in a way that demonstrated a strength that I had never seen before, but still I thought it was improper," Comey told the committee.

Comey told the committee that he and Ashcroft the week before had determined the classified program he declined to name Tuesday should not be authorized and had communicated that to the White House.

Comey said some time after the hospital visit he got a call from Card, who was very upset, asking him to come to the White House. He responded that after what he had seen, he would not meet with White House officials without a witness and said he wanted to bring Solicitor General Ted Olson.

Later that night, Comey said, he did go to the White House, but he said the issue was not resolved then.

Program authorized without Justice Department approval

Comey said the program was reauthorized the next day without a Justice Department signature, and he then prepared a letter of resignation. However, he said he did not hand that letter in because the Justice Department's chief of staff asked him to delay it until Ashcroft could also resign.

The Justice Department later declined to comment on Comey's testimony.

"We cannot comment on internal discussions that may or may not have taken place concerning classified intelligence activities," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd. "As the Attorney General indicated earlier this year, any electronic surveillance that was being conducted pursuant to the [Terrorist Surveillance Program] is now being conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court."

Card told CNN he had no comment on the information. A spokesman for Ashcroft also declined to comment.

Ashcroft turned in his resignation in November 2004; Comey announced his resignation in March 2005.

Comey then told the committee about separate meetings he and FBI Director Robert Mueller had on March 12, 2004, with President Bush. Comey met with the president first, he said, but would not disclose what was said during their meeting.

After Mueller's session with President Bush, Mueller told Comey the president had given them "direction to do the right thing," Comey said Tuesday. "We could certify its legality and then set out to do that," he said, in reference to altering the NSA program so that it satisfied the Justice Department's requirements for legality.

Gonzales has been accused of removing the U.S. attorneys because of partisan concerns that they were either not doing enough to prosecute Democrats on voter fraud charges or doing too much in pressing corruption charges against Republicans. The White House denied the charges.

Gonzales has appeared before the Senate and House Judiciary committees as members of Congress investigate the accusations.



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