2004 March 10

Attorney General Ashcroft Upholds the Rule of Law in Famous Hospital Confrontation


Lying in his hospital bed at George Washington University Hospital after gall bladder surgery, Attorney General John Ashcroft on this day displayed perhaps the greatest act of courage and integrity in the history of his office. The confrontation in his hospital room arose when Jack Goldsmith, head of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the George W. Bush administration, concluded that parts of the administration’s surveillance programs were illegal and should not be extended.

Bush aides Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card learned of the decision and rushed to Ashcroft’s room at the hospital to get him to sign the approval (The OLC serves, in effect, as the lawyer for the Justice Department; the importance of the position has grown quietly but significantly in recent decades.) Meanwhile, James Comey, deputy attorney general, learned of their plan and rushed to the hospital, arriving just before the others. When Gonzales and Card asked Ashcroft, who was visibly unwell, to sign the document, he raised himself up, pointed to Comey, and noted that he was acting attorney general. It was an act of enormous courage and integrity.

The Bush aides pressed on to get President Bush to sign the approval. (Opinions of the OLC are advisory only, and presidents are free to ignore them, although there is no known case where a president has done that.) Comey confronted the president and said he would resign if Bush signed the document. Many other Justice Department officials also threatened to resign, and Bush backed down and did not sign the approval.

Read about the incident: Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment in the Bush Administration (2007)

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