Mrs. Ashcroft to Gonzales: Plbth!

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Jack Goldsmith, who headed up the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel for a stormy number of months in 2003 and 2004, has written a tell-all of his time in the Department, which included clashes with the administration over warrantless surveillance, torture, and other weighty topics. Jeffrey Rosen’s sneak peek in The New York Times Magazine with Goldsmith is rife with revealing details.

To start, Goldsmith adds his own recollection of the infamous hospital showdown in March of 2004 over the warrantless surveillance program. Attorney General John Ashcroft, remember, had undergone gall bladder surgery, and since he was incapacitated, Deputy Attorney General James Comey had been tapped as the acting AG. When Comey, acting on Goldsmith’s analysis of the program, decided that he could not provide a legal authorization for it to continue, then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and chief of staff Andrew Card raced to the hospital to see if they couldn’t get Ashcroft to sign off.

We’ve already heard Comey’s, FBI Director Robert Mueller’s, and Gonzales’ version of events. Goldsmith’s telling comfirms Comey’s and Mueller’s version and adds a priceless detail:

As he recalled it to me, Goldsmith received a call in the evening from his deputy, Philbin, telling him to go to the George Washington University Hospital immediately, since Gonzales and Card were on the way there. Goldsmith raced to the hospital, double-parked outside and walked into a dark room. Ashcroft lay with a bright light shining on him and tubes and wires coming out of his body.

Suddenly, Gonzales and Card came in the room and announced that they were there in connection with the classified program. “Ashcroft, who looked like he was near death, sort of puffed up his chest,” Goldsmith recalls. “All of a sudden, energy and color came into his face, and he said that he didn’t appreciate them coming to visit him under those circumstances, that he had concerns about the matter they were asking about and that, in any event, he wasn’t the attorney general at the moment; Jim Comey was. He actually gave a two-minute speech, and I was sure at the end of it he was going to die. It was the most amazing scene I’ve ever witnessed.”

After a bit of silence, Goldsmith told me, Gonzales thanked Ashcroft, and he and Card walked out of the room. “At that moment,” Goldsmith recalled, “Mrs. Ashcroft, who obviously couldn’t believe what she saw happening to her sick husband, looked at Gonzales and Card as they walked out of the room and stuck her tongue out at them. She had no idea what we were discussing, but this sweet-looking woman sticking out her tongue was the ultimate expression of disapproval. It captured the feeling in the room perfectly.”

More from Goldsmith soon.