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ABC and CBS still have not reported -- on either their evening news or morning news broadcasts -- former deputy attorney general James B. Comey's account of what NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams May 15 called a "rare glimpse of a high-level, late-night power struggle" over the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic wiretapping program. As NBC Nightly News justice correspondent Pete Williams reported May 15, Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee that then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card attempted to pressure then-Attorney General John Ashcroft "at his [hospital] bedside ... to approve an extension of the secret NSA warrantless eavesdropping program over strong Justice Department objections," as Media Matters for America has noted.
By contrast, NBC News has continued to report on the story. The May 17 edition of NBC News' Today led with a report on the aftermath of Comey's testimony and the renewed calls for Gonzales' resignation due to his role in the "hospital drama." Today co-host Meredith Vieira opened the show's May 17 broadcast by stating: "Slippery slope? Attorney General Alberto Gonzales under fire again after some bombshell testimony claiming he tried to make an end run to get the government's controversial eavesdropping program renewed. Now, another Republican senator is calling for his resignation." She later reported that "Republican Senator Chuck Hagel [NE] now says that" Gonzales "should resign," making Hagel "the fourth GOP senator to do so."
In his Today report, Pete Williams noted that the controversy "goes back to one March night three years ago," when Justice Department and White House officials met in a "showdown over the NSA's program to intercept the calls of U.S. citizens suspected of talking to terrorists overseas." As Media Matters has noted, Comey, who served as acting attorney general while Ashcroft was ill, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Justice Department had concerns about the legality of the NSA domestic wiretapping program, and he and Ashcroft had met prior to the March 11, 2004, deadline for the program's renewal to discuss "concerns as to our ability to certify its legality."
Hagel, a possible Republican presidential candidate, released a statement on March 16 in which he called for Gonzales' resignation:
The American people deserve an Attorney General, the chief law enforcement officer of our country, whose honesty and capability are beyond question. Attorney General Gonzales can no longer meet this standard. He has failed this country. He has lost the moral authority to lead. Comey's testimony yesterday brings to light the latest episode in a series of questionable actions by Attorney General Gonzales. It is another part of a pattern of flawed decision making by the Attorney General.
America is a nation of laws. In the interest of the American people, Alberto Gonzales should resign now.
In August 2006, a federal judge ruled the NSA program to be unconstitutional. The administration is appealing the decision.
Comey's testimony came as part of Congress' ongoing investigation into the controversial dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys. As Media Matters has previously noted (here and here), the network news broadcasts were initially slow in reporting on that scandal.
From the May 17 edition of NBC's Today:
VIEIRA: Good morning. Slippery slope? Attorney General Alberto Gonzales under fire again after some bombshell testimony claiming he tried to make an end run to get the government's controversial eavesdropping program renewed. Now, another Republican senator is calling for his resignation.
MATT LAUER (co-host): You know, it seemed as though Alberto Gonzales had weathered the storm over the firing of those federal prosecutors. But now he's facing some more pressure. This time, it's coming from his own party.
VIEIRA: In fact, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel now says that he should resign, the fourth GOP senator to do so. And it's all over some testimony on the Hill this week that reads like a Washington mystery novel. It involves a nearly comatose attorney general, an alleged end run, and a high-speed race to the hospital. And Pete Williams will be along in a moment with all the twists and turns of this crazy story.
LAUER: but first, let's start in Washington, where Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is in hot water once again following some dramatic testimony by a former top Justice Department official. NBC's justice correspondent Pete Williams has more. And Pete, this does sound like a spy novel.
WILLIAMS: It does, Matt, and Washington is fascinated with it. So dramatic that it sounds like something out of a movie. It goes back to one March night three years ago. A showdown over the NSA's program to intercept the calls of U.S. citizens suspected of talking to terrorists overseas.
The riveting account come from James Comey, who was then the number-two man at the Justice Department but temporarily in charge because his boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, was seriously ill, hospitalized with pancreas trouble. Comey says he was on the way home when he got an urgent call and sped to the hospital.
COMEY [video clip]: That night was probably the most difficult night of my professional life.
WILLIAMS: He ran up the stairs hoping to get there before Alberto Gonzales, then White House counsel, and Andy Card, White House chief of staff. He says when they arrived, they tried to get Ashcroft's approval for an extension of the eavesdroping program despite strong Justice Department objections.
COMEY [video clip]: I was very upset. I was angry. I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.
WILLIAMS: He says Ashcroft lifted his head off the pillow and adamately refused to sign. Just minutes after the bedside drama, Comey says an agitated Card demanded he come to the White House.
COMEY [video clip]: I responded that after the conduct I had just witnessed, I would not meet with him without a witness present.
WILLIAMS: Comey says because the surveillance program was allowed to go ahead without Justice Department approval, he and other top officials, including FBI director Robert Mueller, considered resigning. And he revealed they weren't the only ones.
COMEY [video clip]: Mr. Ashcroft's chief of staff asked me something that meant a great deal to him, and that is that I not resign until Mr. Ashcroft was well enough to resign with me.
WILLIAMS: Eventually, the crisis was defused when President Bush ordered changes in the spy program based on Justice Department concerns. Senators said found the story astonishing.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY) [video clip]: I basically almost lost my breath because it was so astounding.
WILLIAMS: Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, says this episode shows that Gonzales lacks moral authority and should resign. The White House isn't commenting on the hospital drama but it says Mr. Gonzales has the president's full support. Matt?
LAUER: All right, Pete, thanks very much. Pete Williams in Washington this morning.