John Ashcroft (Briefly) Defends Our Civil Liberties


John Ashcroft is the unlikely hero of former Deputy Attorney General James Comey's story about how Justice Department officials bravely refused to sign off on a 2004 reauthorization of the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance program. The climax came when Ashcroft, recovering from emergency gall bladder surgery and perhaps hallucinating phantoms of lost liberty, stood up to the White House:

Mr. Comey said he arrived first in the darkened [hospital] room, in time to brief Mr. Ashcroft, who he said seemed barely conscious. Before Mr. Ashcroft became ill, Mr. Comey said the two men had talked and agreed that the program should not be renewed.

When the White House officials appeared minutes later, Mr. Gonzales began to explain to Mr. Ashcroft why they were there. Mr. Comey said Mr. Ashcroft rose weakly from his hospital bed, but in strong and unequivocal terms, refused to approve the eavesdropping program.

After some unspecified tweaks to the program that somehow made it legal without making it conform to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Ashcroft relented. White House spokesman Tony Snow says the confrontation was much ado about nothing:

[Snow] deflected questions about Mr. Comey's testimony, but defended the N.S.A. program. Mr. Snow also noted that the Justice Department placed the program under the supervision of a special intelligence court earlier this year, which department officials said placed the program on an even firmer legal footing.

"Jim Comey can talk about whatever reservations he may have had, but the fact is that there were strong protections in there," Mr. Snow said. "This is a program that saved lives, that is vital for national security, and furthermore has been reformed in a bipartisan way that is in keeping with everybody."

So the administration's position is that the program was always legal, became a little more legal after the changes demanded by Ashcroft, and is even more legal now.