Here's the NY Times, better known as the Ministry of Truth, reporting on the notes of FBI Director Robert Mueller about the hospital room meeting of then White House Cousel Alberto Gonzales and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card with AG John Ashcroft.
WASHINGTON, Aug. 16 — 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 F.B.I.
Mr. Mueller’s notes of his visit to Mr. 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 before the Senate Judiciary Committee about it in May.
From The Politico, here's the statement of Rep. John Conyers, currently trying to stir up a hornet's nest over the visit.
"Director Mueller’s notes and recollections concerning the White House visit to the Attorney General’s hospital bed confirm an attempt to goad a sick and heavily medicated Ashcroft to approve the warrantless surveillance program,” said Conyers in a statement. “Particularly disconcerting is the new revelation that the White House sought Mr. Ashcroft’s authorization for the surveillance program, yet refused to let him seek the advice he needed on the program."
Unfortunately for both the Times and Mr. Conyers, the notes do not represent a contemporaneous independent corroboration of Mr. Comey's testimony. Rather, they represent Mr. Mueller's recollection of what Mr. Comey told him upon his arrival at the hospital. Here's a link, via The Politico, to a PDF of the redacted notes. Here is the key paragraph, which the Times conveniently neglected to quote from:
@1940: At Hospital. Card and J. Gonzales have come and gone. Comey tells me that they saw the AG and were told by the AG that he was in no condition to decide issues, and that Comey was the Acting AG. All matters were to be taken to him, but that he supported the Acting AG's decisions. The AG then reviewed for them the legal concerns relating to the program. The AG also told them he was barred from obtaining the advice he needed on the program by the strict compartmentalization rules of the WH. Comey asked me to meet briefly with the AG to see his condition. He also asked that I inform the detail that no visitors, other than family, were to be allowed to see the AG without my consent. (I so informed the detail.)
Let's break it down.
- According to these notes, Mr. Mueller was not present at the hospital at any time while Mr. Card and Mr. Gonzales were there. Therefore this entire paragraph as it relates to their encounter with Mr. Ashcroft is hearsay, and not an firsthand acoount of anything that happened. The notes merely confirm what Mueller heard from Comey.
- What is that hearsay produced for Mr. Mueller by Mr. Comey, point by point? Comey tells Mueller the following (whether it's accurate is up for debate):
- that AG Ashcroft told the two that he was in no condition to decide issues
- that AG reviewed the legal concerns relating "to the program." (Which precise program is left fully unspecified.)
- that the AG told them he was barred from obtaining advice on the program
- Mr. Comey then makes sure that no further reconsideration can take place, even as AG Ashcroft's condition improves, by convincing Mr. Mueller to bar non-family visitors.
Does any of this prove that Mr. Comey's version of events is correct? Hardly. What the FBI director has written down is what Mr. Comey told him, and not a single word of it represents independent knowledge of events in the room during that visit. Yet, there are the NY Times and Rep. Conyers claiming that mantle for these notes.
Let's emphasize this point one more time. The Times writes:
Mr. Mueller’s notes of his visit to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital room provide another eyewitness account of the dramatic confrontation over the secret surveillance program.
Check me if I'm wrong on this, but don't you actually have to be there to be an "eyewitness?"
Two other minor points. First, the time stamp for when Mr. Mueller was notified that Mr. Card and Mr. Gonzales were "on their way to the hospital" is 1920. The time stamp for Mr. Mueller's arrival is 1940. Now the time stamps may be off, but if accurate then the entire encounter had to be five minutes or less. Hardly enough time to badger man recovering from surgery. Second, Mr. Mueller enters the room at 2010, according to the notes, and finds Mr. Ashcroft "in chair. Is feeble, barely articulate, clearly stressed." That, of course, is roughly an hour after the visit in question, now after 8 pm, and may not represent accurately the situation at the time of the visit. Had he taken pain medication that kicked in? Was he drained from sitting up too long? We don't know anything about his condition at the time of the visit, only what it was like an hour later.
Mr. Sulzberger, Mr. Conyers, please tell me you've got something better than this.
8/16/07 1155: I see that even at The Jurist they have trouble with English comprehension.