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