When then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales went to John Ashcroft’s hospital room on the evening of March 10, 2004 to ask the ailing Attorney General to override Justice Department officials and reauthorize a secret domestic wiretapping program, he was acting inappropriately, Ashcroft’s deputy at the time, James Comey, testified before Congress earlier this week. But the question some lawyers, national security experts and congressional investigators are now asking is: Was Gonzales in fact acting illegally?
“Executive branch rules require sensitive classified information to be discussed in specialized facilities that are designed to guard against the possibility that officials are being targeted for surveillance outside of the workplace,” says Georgetown Law Professor Neal Katyal, who was National Security Advisor to the Deputy Attorney General under Bill Clinton. “The hospital room of a cabinet official is exactly the type of target ripe for surveillance by a foreign power,” Katyal says. This particular information could have been highly sensitive. Says one government official familiar with the Terrorist Surveillance Program: “Since it’s that program, it may involve cryptographic information,” some of the most highly protected information in the intelligence community.
The penalty for “knowingly and willfully” disclosing information “concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States” carries a penalty up to 10 years in prison under U.S. law. “It’s the one you worry about, says the government official familiar with the program.
In response to questions on the legality of Gonzales’ hospital room conversation, Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the National Security Division of the Justice Department, said, “I am not going to speculate on discussions that may or may not have taken place, much less attempt to render a legal judgment on any such discussions.” A Senate investigator says the Judiciary Committee is weighing whether to investigate the matter formally. One consideration will be whether the Justice department itself decides it should be investigated. Gonzales, as head of the department, would be conflicted in the matter. “The fact that you have a potential case against the Attorney General himself calls for the most scrupulous and independent of investigations,” says Georgetown’s Katyal.
Hey, I realize it’s a process crime and it would be much more satisfying to snag the entire Bush gang for knowingly violating our constitutional protection against warrantless eavesdropping. But, remember how they finally imprisoned Al Capone?