FBI chief's notes detail ailing Ashcroft's distress

August 17, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- John Ashcroft was "barely articulate," "feeble" and "clearly stressed" as he sat in a hospital room chair in March 2004 when top White House aides unsuccessfully tried to persuade him, as the attorney general, to sign an extension for warrantless domestic eavesdropping on Americans, according to notes made by Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the FBI.

Mueller's notes of his visit to Ashcroft's hospital room provide another eyewitness account of the dramatic confrontation over the secret surveillance program. They confirm an account of the encounter given by James B. Comey, the former deputy attorney general, who testified about it before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May.

Mueller's typed notes, which are undated, also reveal a series of meetings earlier and later that month between the FBI director and other administration officials, including Comey; Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel; and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then the director of the National Security Agency, which conducted the electronic monitoring program.

Mueller's notes show that Ashcroft said that he was "barred" from getting as much information as he wanted about the highly classified eavesdropping program, because of strict White House secrecy rules.

Mueller's notes, which have been turned over to the House Judiciary Committee, were described by two officials who had reviewed them. The notes recount Mueller's arrival at the hospital after Gonzales and Andrew H. Card Jr., then the White House chief of staff, had attempted to persuade Ashcroft to sign a presidential order reauthorizing the program. Comey, who was acting as attorney general during Ashcroft's hospitalization, had declined to sign the reauthorization because he believed that part of the program was unlawful.

Mueller said he went to the hospital after receiving a phone call from Comey, arriving there at 7:40 p.m.; he stayed until 8:20 p.m. His notes said that Comey told him that Ashcroft, who had undergone gall bladder surgery the previous day, was in "no condition" to receive visitors.

Mueller's notes were turned over to the committee with some of the entries deleted or heavily edited, including virtually all of Mueller's notations about his White House meeting with President Bush on March 12, when the FBI director intervened to head off threatened resignations by himself, Ashcroft, Comey and a number of other Justice Department officials.

After speaking with Comey and Mueller, Bush agreed to permit changes in the NSA activities to satisfy the legal objections. Current and former government officials have said the legal dispute involved data mining, meaning computer searches of large volumes of electronic records of telephone calls and e-mail messages.

Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 26, Mueller gave a sparse description of the hospital encounter that generally accorded with Comey's account. But he declined to describe his conversation with Ashcroft in any detail.

In response to a question about the attorney general's condition that night, he replied only that he knew Ashcroft "had gone through a difficult operation and was being closely monitored in the hospital."

Pressed by committee Democrats for a fuller description of the scene, a seemingly reluctant Mueller would say only that the hospital visit was "out of the ordinary."

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