A New Question for Gonzales

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FBI Director Robert Mueller’s notes (redacted text linked here) serve largely to confirm, contemporaneously, the accounts of that now-famous 2004 scene at then-AG John Ashcroft’s hospital bedside that he and former Deputy Attorney General James Comey offered in earlier congressional testimony. And they don’t shed any light on what remains the central mystery in all of this: What, precisely, was the legal issue regarding the domestic surveillance program that had much of the upper echelon of the Justice Department on the verge of resignation? But Mueller’s typewritten account also raises an intriguing new issue, with this notation, which refers to Ashcroft’s refusal to give Alberto Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card the approval they were seeking for a continuation of the warrantless wiretapping program:

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.

In other words, the Attorney General of the United States couldn’t get information and advice that he thought he needed about a sensitive government program–one whose operation raised issues within his jurisdiction–because the White House wouldn’t give it to him. That refusal was presumably the call of then-White House Counsel Gonzales. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers calls this new revelation “particularly disconcerting” and suggests this is not the last we will be hearing about it:

Unfortunately, this heavily redacted document raises far more questions than it answers. We intend to fully investigate this incident and the underlying subject matter that evoked such widespread distress within the Department and the FBI. We will be seeking an unredacted copy of Director Mueller’s notes covering meetings before and after the hospital visit and expect to receive information from several of the individuals mentioned in the document.”

Ralph, your posts have been part of my vacation reading (I’m back on Monday). You’ve dealt with the Judiciary committees as much as anyone in Washington over the years. Where do you think this is heading?

UPDATE: Thanks, commenter Linda for this link to Anonymous Liberal that (possibly) clarifies the issue here, which may be that while Ashcroft was read into the program, his key aides, upon whom he relied for advice, were not. All of this is particularly interesting, as commenter JJ notes, given the fact (brought to light by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse) that, in other arenas, the White House had actually widened the communications pipeline between it and the Justice Department, saying that this was necessary for the war on terrorism.