On Tuesday, James Comey, the former deputy attorney general, disclosed a story that might have been written by Mario Puzo, and it explained the rise of Gonzales as attorney general. On March 10, 2004, Comey was serving as acting attorney general while John Ashcroft was in an intensive-care unit being treated for pancreatitis. After an "extensive review" by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which concluded that Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program was illegal, Comey refused to sign its reauthorization. An aide to Ashcroft tipped Comey off that White House legal counsel Gonzales and chief of staff Andrew Card were headed to Ashcroft's hospital to get him to sign it. Comey rushed to the darkened room, where he briefed the barely conscious Ashcroft. Gonzales and Card entered minutes later, demanding that Ashcroft comply. He refused, pointing to Comey, saying he was the attorney general. "I was angry. I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man," Comey testified.
Gonzales and Card then summoned Comey to the White House, where they attempted to intimidate him by telling him that Vice President Dick Cheney and his counsel, David Addington, were in favor of the reauthorization. Comey still refused. And the program went forward without the legal Justice Department approval. Comey and other high Justice Department officials prepared their resignation letters. The next day, having heard about the planned mass resignations, President Bush met alone with Comey, who briefed him on what needed to be done to bring the program under the law. Several weeks later Comey signed the authorization for a legal program. But during that period it was conducted outside the law.Then, after Bush's reelection, Ashcroft was not reappointed. In his place Bush sent a new name to the Senate for confirmation -- Alberto Gonzales.