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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ashcroft, Mueller saw eavesdropping as illegal: the missing headline

The testimony given to the Senate by former justice official James Comey is riveting. See it while you can on YouTube, before it's taken down (because, in our crazy system of intellectual property, footage of Senate hearings isn't in the public domain).

From Jim Dwyer's "About New York" column in the NY Times today:
Mr. Schumer asked about an evening three years ago, when Mr. Comey — a lawyer who grew up in New York and New Jersey — was the acting attorney general of the United States because his boss, John Ashcroft, was sick in the hospital.

“You rushed to the hospital that evening,” the senator asked. “Why?”

“I’ve actually thought quite a bit over the last three years about how I would answer that question if it was ever asked, because I assumed that at some point, I would have to testify about it,” Mr. Comey answered.

And for the next 16 minutes and 35 seconds, Mr. Comey peeled open the evening of March 10, 2004, revealing that the country’s top law enforcement officials were prepared to resign in a group over President Bush’s surveillance program. These included John Ashcroft and Mr. Comey, attorney general and deputy attorney general during the president’s first administration, and Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the F.B.I.

This is history at high velocity: just 18 months ago, The New York Times was being criticized as treasonous for having published an article on the existence of those surveillance operations, recounting that unnamed senior officials in the Bush administration were deeply skeptical about their legality.

What I don't understand is why everyone buried the lede, which is that Ashcroft and Mueller were ready to resign as a group in protest against Bush's wiretapping policy because they viewed it as illegal. The Times headlines about Comey's testimony read:
"Mr. Gonzales's Incredible Adventure"
and
"Bush Intervened in Dispute Over N.S.A. Eavesdropping"
and the Washington Post's were
"Gonzales Hospital Episode Detailed : Ailing Ashcroft Pressured on Spy Program, Former Deputy Says"
and
"White House Pushed Ashcroft on Wiretappings. Former Deputy Says Program Implemented Despite Objections"
The Post's headlines at least were informative, especially the second one. But shouldn't there have been a headline along the lines of "Ashcroft and FBI Director Saw Eavesdropping as Illegal; Planned to Resign, Former Deputy Says"? That Ashcroft, as supportive of the PATRIOT Act as he was, was so opposed to Bush's policy and to Gonzales's legal interpretation says a lot. You shouldn't be able to scan the headlines and not learn that fact.

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