A sophisticated observer with relevant professional background writes to comment on John’s post on James Comey’s testimony earlier this week:
On the face of it, there was little of interest in former Deputy Attorney General Comey’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday. No wrongdoing was alleged against AG Gonzalez or any Administration official, and the matters discussed occurred well before Gonzalez was even nominated for the AG post. However, there is an aspect that deserves to be emphasized–or, rather, there is more to the context than appears in the testimony.
Comey came on board as DAG at the beginning of December, 2003, and he had some unusual support for a Republican appointee–Senator Chuck Schumer was very much in his corner. So it was that Comey was pretty much brand new on the job at the time he decided to reverse what appeared to the Administration as settled policy on the NSA eavesdropping program–certainly a shocking and radical development in any Administration. But Comey had already taken actions that boded ill for the White House, and especially for the Office of the Vice President (OVP), with whom the transcript shows he was in serious, and probably personal, conflict.
Comey, when asked for names of his adversaries in the OVP, mentioned his disagreements with VP Dick Cheney and Cheney’s Legal Counsel, David Addington. Curiously, Comey failed to mention Scooter Libby–Cheney’s Chief of Staff, a prominent attorney in his own right, and a leading architect of policy at the OVP–even though it is known that Libby was also involved in these matters. It is scarcely credible to suppose that Comey had no dealings with Libby, nor that they were in disagreement over the NSA program. Perhaps Comey avoided mention of Libby because he wished to avoid the appearance of personal animus. After all, it is well known that Libby had beaten Comey in a contentious case in the Southern District of New York a few years earlier, and one of Comey’s first acts as DAG–before the NSA program came up for recertification–was to talk Ashcroft into recusing himself from the Plame affair. Comey then proceeded to appoint his former SDNY pal Patrick Fitzgerald to go after Libby, even expanding Fitzgerald’s purview to “process violations,” even though Comey knew that Armitage was the “leaker” and that the supposed “leak” violated no known law.
The upshot was that Comey and his supporters–I’m guessing career lawyers at DoJ with past connections to Schumer and other Democrats–may well have already been targeting the OVP through Fitzgerald when they next precipitated a crisis by refusing to recertify the NSA program. I doubt that it was any coincidence that Fitzgerald dragged Cheney and Addington into the Plamegate charade. Remember, too, that both Comey and Fitzgerald had close connections with Schumer from their days in the SDNY. Seen in the total context, Comey throwing bouquets Ashcroft’s way during his testimony was a subterfuge, a way of saying: look, even the arch-conservative Ashcroft was morally outraged at the evil Administration. Certainly Comey tacked back and forth, admitting that nothing illegal was done and so forth, but the PR damage was done–as intended. I suspect that the arrival of Comey at the feckless Ashcroft’s DoJ signalled the beginning of a coup attempt that would use DoJ to try to topple, or seriously cripple, the Administration through action on several fronts: prominently Plamegate and legal aspects of the GWOT. To suppose that all this was coincidence is to elevate coincidence to the level of an analytical principle in the study of politics–something no person with any knowledge of the ways in which bureaucracies work can accept.
PAUL adds: In fairness to Comey, as I understand it the change in the Justice Department’s view on the legality of the NSA intercept program was based on the analysis of its Office of Legal Counsel, and particularly that of Jack Goldsmith, an excellent legal mind with (I’m guessing) nothing against Dick Cheney or Scotter Libby.
My other thought is that if Comey is an ally of Schumer (and I’ll grant that they seemed cozy the other day), how on earth did he get the number two job at DOJ in this administration?
UPDATE: Our reader also alerts us to today’s Wall Street Journal editorial “Wiretap tales.”