THE more information that emerges on how matters of justice are handled by the Bush Administration, the more Americans have reason to be worried about respect of their rights by this government.
Although the focus continues to be on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the concern must extend further, to what he did while White House legal counsel and what he does at the top of the Justice Department as attorney general.
The latest disturbing incident emerges from testimony given before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday by James B. Comey, deputy attorney general from 2003 to 2005 when John Ashcroft was attorney general. In March 2004, Mr. Ashcroft was seriously ill in a hospital intensive care unit and Mr. Comey was acting as attorney general in his place.
The legality of the administration's surveillance program of Americans' and foreigners' telephone calls and e-mails without court orders was in question. Mr. Comey had been asked by the White House to renew the program. The Justice Department had determined that the program was illegal and Mr. Comey had refused to authorize its extension on those grounds.
Mr. Gonzales, then White House counsel, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card, Jr. went to Mr. Ashcroft's hospital bed to try to get him to authorize the program, thereby overruling Mr. Comey and the judgment of his own department. Mr. Ashcroft was alert and astute enough to refuse. The White House, by the way, proceeded with the eavesdropping program anyway with some changes, although concerns about its legality remain.
In this episode the Bush White House, and Mr. Gonzales in particular, were guilty of two pieces of outrageous behavior. The first was for Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card to go to the hospital to try to bully Mr. Ashcroft on his sick bed to overrule his department. The second, more serious in the long run, was to roll on with a major violation of rights that the Justice Department had already determined to be illegal.
Two actions are called for now. The first, as we have recommended before, is that Mr. Gonzales must be fired. He clearly has no respect for legality or for Americans' rights - truly appalling characteristics for an attorney general.
The second is the Congress must probe whether the visit by Mr. Card and Mr. Gonzales to John Ashcroft's hospital bed was their own bright idea, or whether they were directed by President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney.
Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card should be compelled to answer that question under oath before the Congress and the American people.
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