Plenty of buzz today surrounding the release of FBI Director Robert Mueller's (heavily redacted) notes regarding the midnight raid on John Ashcroft's hospital room. But before I get to what the buzz is and what it reveals, just one quick note on part of the WaPo coverage of the story:
Comey had precipitated the confrontation by informing the White House days earlier that the Justice Department would not approve the wiretapping program's continuation in its present form. Gonzales and Card then decided to see if they could get Ashcroft to sign a certification that it was legal.
After the meeting concluded without success, the Bush administration decided to proceed with the program anyway. But Comey, Mueller and half a dozen or so other Justice Department officials threatened to resign if it was not changed. The standoff was averted after President Bush agreed to make changes, Mueller and others have testified, but the changes have never been described.
Comey precipitates confrontation. Meeting concludes without success. "Administration" decides to proceed anyway. Comey, Mueller and others threaten to resign if changes aren't made.
Standoff averted after Bush makes changes? Standoff averted?
No, standoff not averted. Standoff successful for Comey, Mueller and others. Bush loses standoff. Resignations averted. Not standoff.
Now, back to the show.
In his notes, Mueller recounts Comey's statement that Ashcroft complained to Gonzales and Card at the hospital about being "barred" from obtaining "the advice he needed" about the NSA program because of "strict compartmentalization rules" set by the White House. Although Ashcroft, as attorney general, had been fully briefed about the program, many of his senior legal advisers were not allowed to know about it, officials said.
That's incredibly important all by itself, both for obvious reasons (they kept the AG purposefully underinformed, even as they pointed to his "authorization" as proof of legality) and not-so-obvious reasons (the "compartmentalization" of critical information was conducted outside of proper channels and designed to produce exactly this worthless facade of "authorization").
But here's another reason why it's important: It answers the question that the Justice Department's own Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) at the request, at the request of Reps. Maurice Hinchey, John Lewis, Henry Waxman and Lynne Woolsey.
The result of that investigation? Said OPR's lead counsel, H. Marshall Jarrett:
We have been unable to make any meaningful progress in our investigation because OPR has been denied security clearances for access to information about the NSA program. Beginning in January 2006, this office made a series of requests for the necessary clearances. On May 9, 2006, we were informed that our requests had been denied. Without these clearances, we cannot investigate this matter and therefore have closed our investigation.
Who denied those clearances? The president himself, according to Gonzales.
But now, we no longer need the investigation. The question was whether or not DOJ personnel acted legally, ethically and in a professionally responsible manner in rendering "legal advice" to the president regarding these surveillance activities.
Mueller answers the question for us: No. They did not.