Cheney Blocks DOJ Official's Promotion: Document

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Documents relating to the late-night hospital room standoff between the Justice Department and the White House over the domestic spying program suggest that Vice President Dick Cheney punished a DOJ official who stood in the way of the reauthorization of the controversial program.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

We have new details today about a dramatic hospital room confrontation between the Justice Department and the White House over the president's domestic spying program. It happened three years ago. Sometime later, the vice president's office barred one of the Justice officials involved in that standoff from being promoted.

NPR's justice reporter Ari Shapiro is here to explain. Good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, that's according to a former Justice Department official at the center of this scandal. Remind us what the standoff was all about.

SHAPIRO: Right. The official is James Comey, who was deputy attorney general in President Bush's first term. And he had already described this hospital confrontation where Attorney General John Ashcroft was sick, Comey was the acting attorney general.

He notified the White House that the Justice Department was not going to reauthorize the domestic spying program because they didn't think it was legal. So the White House sent Chief of Staff Andy Card and the man who was then White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, who's now attorney general, to confront Ashcroft in his hospital room, asked him to override Comey. Ashcroft refused. And this story came out at a dramatic hearing where Comey testified.

The new information we're getting today is from answers to written questions that Comey submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee late last night.

MONTAGNE: And tell us about the man whom the vice president's office denied promotion after this confrontation.

SHAPIRO: His name's Patrick Philbin. He was associate deputy attorney general and so he worked for Comey. He was one of the people who started the legal review of the spying program that concluded the program was illegal. Philbin was in the hospital room that night, March 10, 2004.

Comey had already testified that Philbin was blocked for a promotion because of this event. But what's new is this. Comey says in these written answers to questions Mr. Philbin was considered for principal deputy solicitor general; that's the deputy to the man who represents the federal government before the Supreme Court. And Comey says it was my understanding that the vice president's office blocked that appointment.

Then he gets more specific. He says, I understood that someone at the White House communicated to Attorney General Gonzales that the vice president would oppose the appointment if the attorney general pursued the matter. The attorney general chose not to pursue it.

MONTAGNE: And I gather these documents describe a meeting at the White House the night before the hospital standoff.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. This is the first time we've heard anything about this meeting. It took place March 9, 2004. And it was a very exclusive guest list. There were three people from the Justice Department, including Comey and Philbin. Then from the White House there was counsel Gonzales, Chief of Staff Card; there was David Addington, who was counsel to the vice president. And most importantly, Vice President Dick Cheney himself was at this meeting.

MONTAGNE: And what happened?

SHAPIRO: Well, Comey says this is where he, as acting attorney general, told the vice president that the Justice Department would not reauthorize the spying program. He describes that meeting as a culmination of ongoing dialogue between the Justice Department and the White House.

MONTAGNE: Now, why is this important?

SHAPIRO: Well, it puts not just high-level staffers but the vice president himself at the center of this. Many people have been dumbfounded that Gonzales and Card tried to get a sick John Ashcroft to override Comey. Comey has suggested that it may have been the president who sent them to the hospital room that day. President Bush won't say whether it was him or not.

This meeting shows for the first time that not only top White House aides but the vice president himself dealt with Comey directly about this matter, and then later punished one of the Justice officials involved in it.

MONTAGNE: So what is left to know about this, the unanswered questions?

SHAPIRO: Well, there are two big questions. One is who was it that sent Gonzales and Card to the hospital room that night in March? Was it President Bush? Was it Vice President Cheney? Was it someone else altogether?

And then the second big unanswered question is, what did this program look like that the Justice Department thought was illegal in the first place? This was a program that had been in place for a couple of years. President Bush has publicly described what the program looked like after the Justice Department changed it after the standoff so that they were convinced the program was legal.

But we still don't know what this program looked like originally that James Comey, Patrick Philbin, and even John Ashcroft objected to.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR Justice reporter Ari Shapiro.

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Cheney Blocked Promotion of Dissenting DOJ Official

Vice President Dick Cheney blocked the promotion of a Justice Department official who questioned the legality of the White House-backed domestic spying program in 2004, according to documents given to a Senate committee on Wednesday.

Patrick Philbin was being considered for promotion to principal deputy solicitor general, but Cheney warned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that he would oppose the promotion, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey wrote in response to written questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I understood that someone at the White House communicated to Attorney General Gonzales that the vice president would oppose the appointment if the attorney general pursued the matter," Comey wrote. "The attorney general chose not to pursue it."

Philbin was one of the DOJ lawyers who reported to Comey on a legal analysis of the domestic spying program. Disagreements over the program reached a critical point in March 2004, when Attorney General John Ashcroft was in the hospital for gallbladder surgery.

While Ashcroft was incapacitated, Comey temporarily assumed Ashcroft's duties. He told Cheney during a March 9, 2004, meeting at the White House that the Justice Department would not reauthorize the domestic spying program because they did not think it was legal.

That prompted then-White House Counsel Gonzales and President Bush's chief of staff, Andy Card, to go to Ashcroft's bedside in an intensive care unit at George Washington University Hospital.

Comey had been warned that the White House was sending Gonzales and Card to the hospital to persuade Ashcroft to reauthorize the program. He and Philbin were there waiting when the White House emissaries arrived.

Ashcroft refused to reauthorize the program, so the White House reauthorized it without the Justice Department's approval. That led Comey, Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Philbin and other department officials to prepare to resign.

When faced with a mass walkout of top Justice Department officials, President Bush relented and made the changes in the domestic spying program that Comey and Mueller said were necessary.

It was later that Cheney blocked Philbin's promotion to the number two spot in the Office of the Solicitor General, which represents the government before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Written by Deborah Tedford from NPR reports and the Associated Press



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