A new book containing explosive details about the NSA's illegal spying program hits stores today. Barton Gellman's "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency," excerpted in the Washington Post in two parts (1 & 2), brings to light new information about the warrantless wiretapping scandal and the role played by the most powerful vice president in history.
A certain amount was already known about the behind-the-scenes intrigue concerning the spying program. Earlier reports have described the 2004 near meltdown within the administration, when the top echelon of the Justice department, including Deputy Attorney General James Comey, joined by FBI Director Robert Mueller, planned to resign en masse in protest against the flagrant illegality of the program. (The famous hospital episode — in which then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales tried to bypass the acting AG by making a late night visit to the bedside of the ailing John Ashcroft — is now part of the sordid lore of the Bush years.)
But "Angler" adds some new insights into just how controversial the program was, and just how carefully it was guarded against a full internal review. From the excerpts published in the Post, we learn about the significant role the vice president and his counsel, David Addington, played a in developing and defending the program:
The command center of "the president's program," as Addington usually called it, was not in the White House. Its controlling documents, which gave strategic direction to the nation's largest spy agency, lived in a vault across an alley from the West Wing — in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, on the east side of the second floor, where the vice president headquartered his staff.
The vault was in EEOB 268, Addington's office. Cheney's lawyer held the documents, physical and electronic, because he was the one who wrote them. New forms of domestic espionage were created and developed over time in presidential authorizations that Addington typed on a Tempest-shielded computer across from his desk .
It is unlikely that the history of U.S. intelligence includes another operation conceived and supervised by the office of the vice president. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. had "no idea," he said, that the presidential orders were held in a vice presidential safe. An authoritative source said the staff secretariat, which kept a comprehensive inventory of presidential papers, classified and unclassified, possessed no record of these.
Cheney and Addington, the book reports, were so intent on keeping the spying program behind a veil of secrecy that details were carefully withheld even from top national security officials. According to Gellman, officials kept either totally or partially in the dark about the extent of the program include Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and the "Gang of Eight" — the ranking senators ordinarily kept in the loop on national security matters. The only lawyers allowed to review the program were Gonzales and John Yoo from the Office of Legal Counsel, and the NSA's lawyers' request for information was refused.
Even the president himself was kept in the dark about the internal dissent. Cheney shielded him from knowledge about the Department of Justice's legal concerns with the spying program for a full three months before Bush finally learned the extent of the rebellion. Even in the face of the Attorney General's refusal to certify the legality of the warrantless wiretapping, the president went ahead and signed a directive to renew the program on March 11, 2004 — without the signature of the Attorney General.
What Addington wrote for Bush that day... drew up new language in which the president relied on his own authority to certify the program as lawful. Bush expressly overrode the Justice Department and any act of Congress or judicial decision that purported to constrain his power as commander in chief. Only Richard M. Nixon, in an interview after leaving the White House in disgrace, claimed authority so nearly unlimited.
This renewal led to the brink of the mass resignation. When the president, under the impression that objections were being raised "at the last minute," took acting AG Comey aside to express his dismay, Comey reportedly replied:
"Oh, Mr. President, if you've been told that, you have been very poorly served by your advisers," Comey said. "We have been telling them for months we have a huge problem here."
"Give me six weeks," Bush asked. One more renewal.
"I think you should know that Director Mueller is going to resign today," Comey said.
Bush raised his eyebrows. He shifted in his chair. He could not hide it, or did not try. He was gobsmacked.
"Thank you very much for telling me that," he said.
Comey, who had drafted his resignation and was waiting only for the return of John Ashcroft to official duty for the opportunity to resign in tandem, was persuaded to meet with the president to forestall disaster for the Administration. In response to Comey's objections, the president agreed to make changes to his directive, and the program was modified in ways that remain unknown. On March 18, a new directive that satisfied Comey and Ashcroft was put into place.
What is known is that the fear within the Administration of prosecution for participation in the illegal program was likely a major factor in the decision to adjust course. The new information makes it all the more clear that Congress needs to have more hearings and investigations. In the meantime, we'll keep up the pressure.