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29 May 2007

The attorney general’s tale

Terry Jones relates the shocking story of how senior US government officials tried to coerce a criti

By Terry Jones

It was a typical 8.00 pm on a typical Washington evening, but all that was to change. James B. Comey, number two at the US Justice Department, was stretched back in his stretch limo when the cell-phone rang. It was the Attorney General’s chief of staff.

“They’re on the way to the hospital,” came the voice.

Comey screwed the phone to the side of his head. “Who are?” He chose his words carefully. You had to in this game.

“Special White House Council Alberto Gonzales and President Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card,” was the reply. Comey looked out at the reassuring familiarity of Constitution Avenue.

It had been a long week. The White House had been piling on the pressure to renew the secret wiretapping of American citizens without warrants. The Department of Justice had to recertify the program every 45 days, but the constitutional guardians at the Justice Department had decided the warrantless wiretaps were a legal no-go area.

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To make matters worse, Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized with pancreatitis, and had handed over to Comey, who had refused to sign the authorization. That was when the shit hit the fan. The White House Sopranos were furious.

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Comey snapped his cell off and tapped his security detail on the shoulder.

“Turn around,” he breathed. “George Washington University Hospital, and forget about the carbon footprint.”

Cutting a swathe through the evening traffic, Comey rang FBI Director Robert Mueller. “Tell your agents not to let Gonzales and Card evict me from Ashcroft’s room,” he pleaded.

At the hospital, Comey raced up the stairs, and banged into Ashcroft’s darkened intensive care unit. Ashcroft lay prostrate on the bed, and Comey could tell he was “pretty bad off”.

Minutes later, Gonzales and Card were standing over the sick legal Number One. Gonzales waved an envelope, and spelt it out: he wanted Ashcroft to sign off on the illegal wiretaps then and there.

Ashcroft’s head lifted from his pillow, and his sick eyes fixed the White House Special Council. With the last ounce of his strength he told Gonzales exactly what he thought “in very strong terms”, then he seemed spent, but, as his head fell back, he growled: “But that doesn’t matter, because I’m not the Attorney General. There is the Attorney General.” His hand waved towards Comey.

Gonzales and Card turned on their heels and, without so much as a glance at the acting Attorney General, left the room.

What makes this so exciting is that it isn’t a piece of fiction. It was James Comey’s recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is investigating why Alberto Gonzales (who became Attorney General) fired a number of US prosecutors.

Gonzales’ hospital visit has, I know, attracted a lot of negative comment in the US press. Even the Washington Post has described it as “an account of Bush administration lawlessness so shocking it would have been unbelievable coming from a less reputable source”.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on the man. After all Gonzales has had to put aside a lot of his legal training in order to help his boss. As chief legal counsel for George Bush, when he was Governor of Texas, Gonzales had to write a memo on each death penalty case so Bush could decide whether the defendant should live or die.

According to the Atlantic Monthly, Gonzales’ memos skated over any difficult issues such as conflicts of interest, ineffective counsel and mitigating evidence, and gave “only the most cursory briefings on the issues in dispute”. As a result, Texas executed more prisoners than any other state.

Gonzales has also a proud record in promoting the use of torture by the U.S. It was he who wrote a memo in 2002 describing parts of the Geneva Convention as “quaint” and “obsolete”. The War on Terror, he claimed, “renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners.”

In the same year he got the Justice Department to come up with a spiffing definition of torture saying it “must inflict pain that is difficult to endure.”

More recently, on 18th Jan. 2007, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that there was no guarantee to the right of Habeas Corpus in the United States.

So don’t let’s rush to condemn Alberto Gonzales. He probably didn’t see anything wrong in trying to coerce a critically ill man to sign away the right of American citizens not to be spied on.

It’s quite obvious he finds it difficult to distinguish between right and wrong. Which, come to think of it, is extremely lucky for any Attorney General who works for the current administration.