Dick Cheney, re-litigating The Midnight Ride to John Ashcroft's hospital bed, apparently writes in his memoir that before his incapacitation, Ashcroft informed the White House that he would not object to a reauthorization of the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program. That would be awfully convenient for the Cheney and the Bush team: it would imply that Ashcroft was a fickle flip-flopper, not a man of principle; and suggest there wasn't really much of an internal debate over the propriety of the program.
Even if Ashcroft picked up the phone, there are many reasons to doubt Cheney’s version of the call. It would mean that Bush discussed a codeword-classified intelligence program on an open phone line; that Ashcroft took exactly the opposite position that he took before and after the call; and that the attorney general was even coherent. Those around Ashcroft that evening say he was heavily doped on morphine, slipping in and out of awareness. “I found him barely conscious,” Comey said in an interview. “I had trouble getting him focused, oriented as to time and place.” Mueller wrote in contemporary notes that Ashcroft was “feeble, barely articulate.”
Even harder to credit is Cheney’s suggestion that the White House did not know until that moment that Comey had assumed Ashcroft’s powers. David Ayres, Ashcroft’s chief of staff, called deputy White House chief of staff Joe Hagin from the emergency room a full week earlier, on March 4, to say the attorney general was incapacitated. The next day, Justice sent formal notice to Gonzales’s deputy, David Leitch, that Comey had taken the reins. On March 6, newspapers and broadcast networks carried variations of this report from CNN: “Deputy Attorney General James Comey is acting as attorney general while Ashcroft is hospitalized.” For the next four days, Comey repeatedly filled in for Ashcroft in White House meetings. In one of them, Bush asked after Ashcroft’s health and Comey replied, “Not well.”
Cheney misstates another crucial point, alleging that it was not until “the spring” of 2004 that Justice began “raising concerns” about the surveillance program. In fact, the chief of the Office of Legal Counsel, Jack Goldsmith, started expressing strong doubts in December 2003, and Comey joined him in January. David Addington, Cheney’s general counsel, engaged in a ferocious effort over the next three months to suppress a growing legal rebellion. When lawyers from the NSA asked to see the opinions under dispute, Addington angrily refused and told them to back off.
Now that is journalism: powerful man tells mendacious, self-serving lie about national security. Journalist mans the ramparts for the truth and calmly dispenses with the bullshit claim. Every time I get cynical about this business, or forget it is what my job truly is, something like Bart's piece comes along, and we're all better off. Even Dick Cheney, who needs the truth whether he understands that need or not.