A Circle Drawn Too Tight

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In today’s riveting second installment of Bart Gellman’s new book on Dick Cheney, the Washington Post adds further detail to that now-famous hospital bed scene in which then-Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to re-authorize the Bush Administration’s warrantless domestic surveillance program:

Was Comey going to sit there and watch a barely conscious man make his mark? On an order that he believed, and knew Ashcroft believed, to be unlawful?

Unexpectedly, Ashcroft roused himself. Previous accounts have said he backed his deputy. He did far more than that. Ashcroft told the president’s men he never should have certified the program in the first place.

“You drew the circle so tight I couldn’t get the advice that I needed,” Ashcroft said, according to Comey. He knew things now, the attorney general said, that he should have been told before. Spent, he sank back in his bed.

Mueller arrived just after Card and Gonzales departed. He shared a private moment with Ashcroft, bending over to hear the man’s voice.

“Bob, I’m struggling,” Ashcroft said.

“In every man’s life there comes a time when the good Lord tests him,” Mueller replied. “You have passed your test tonight.”

But the larger point of today’s story is how assiduously Cheney worked to keep President Bush himself from getting the information he needed:

Gellman notes, for instance, that as the top echelon of the Justice Department was contemplating a mass resignation:

It was close to midnight when Comey got home, long past the president’s bedtime. Bush had yet to learn that his government was coming apart.

And how carefully Cheney and his subordinates had controlled the flow of information to the Chief Executive:

At the White House on Thursday morning, the president moved in a bubble so tight that hardly any air was getting in. It was March 11, decision day. If Bush reauthorized the program, he would have no signature from the attorney general. By now that was nowhere near the president’s biggest problem.

Many of the people Bush trusted most were out of the picture. Karl Rove was not cleared for the program. Neither was Dan Bartlett or Karen Hughes.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice had the clearance, but Cheney did not invite her to the meetings that mattered.

As Gellman tells it, the officials came within minutes of resigning, and the program was modified, though he is frustratingly vague (and I assume was frustrated in his reporting, or what he felt he could report) in telling us how:

Not 24 hours earlier, the president had signed his name to an in-your-face rejection of the attorney general’s ruling on the law. Now he had two bad choices. March on, with all the consequences. Or retreat.

The president stepped back from the precipice. He gave Mueller a message for Comey.

“Tell Jim to do what Justice thinks needs to be done,” he said.

Seven days later, Bush amended his March 11 directive. The legal certification belonged again to the attorney general. The surveillance program stopped doing some things, and it did other things differently. Much of the operation remained in place. Not all of it.

As they always do, I’m sure many of our commenters will ask, why is this coming out now, in the final months of the Bush presidency? Gellman’s account makes it clear how tightly this information was held, and he has done an extraordinary job of getting the officials involved to talk to him on the record. But the question of why they waited so long is a valid one–as is the question of what we still don’t know.