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Barton Gellman Says Dick Cheney Is a Liar

So what else is new?

Barton Gellman:

In New Memoir, Dick Cheney Tries to Rewrite History: On March 10, Bush sent White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card to obtain Ashcroft’s signature as he lay in intensive care. When Ashcroft refused, Cheney’s lawyer drafted and Bush signed an order renewing the warrantless surveillance over explicit Justice Department objections.

Cheney’s version of this story adds a stunning twist: Ashcroft told Bush on the phone, before Gonzales and Card arrived, “that he would sign the documents” to certify the surveillance as lawful. But the two men found Comey there when they arrived, Cheney writes, and “it became immediately clear that Ashcroft had changed his mind.”… [I]t is very difficult to see how Cheney’s claims on either point could be true.

Comey and four other officials with contemporary knowledge told me in interviews that Janet Ashcroft, the attorney general’s wife, refused two attempts that evening by the White House operator to patch a call to her husband. Doctors said he was far too sick to speak. According to contemporary notes from Ashcroft’s FBI security detail, quoted in an inspectors general report of 2009, she refused to put her husband on the phone even when Bush joined Card on the line…. Bush implied in his memoir that he did reach Ashcroft, but said he told him only that “I was sending Andy and Al to talk to him about an urgent matter.”

Even if Ashcroft picked up the phone, there are many reasons to doubt Cheney’s version of the call. It would mean that Bush discussed a codeword-classified intelligence program on an open phone line; that Ashcroft took exactly the opposite position that he took before and after the call; and that the attorney general was even coherent…. Even harder to credit is Cheney’s suggestion that the White House did not know until that moment that Comey had assumed Ashcroft’s powers. David Ayres, Ashcroft’s chief of staff, called deputy White House chief of staff Joe Hagin from the emergency room a full week earlier, on March 4, to say the attorney general was incapacitated….

Cheney misstates another crucial point, alleging that it was not until “the spring” of 2004 that Justice began “raising concerns” about the surveillance program. In fact, the chief of the Office of Legal Counsel, Jack Goldsmith, started expressing strong doubts in December 2003, and Comey joined him in January….

It is very likely true, on the other hand, that Bush was unaware of the crisis until the last moment. My reporting supports the president’s published account that he did not know about the Justice Department’s objections until the day before the program was set to expire. The sudden news, portrayed by Card and Cheney as a sudden turnabout by Comey, is what prompted Bush to dispatch his aides to the hospital. Even then, it was not until the next morning – when he discovered that Comey and FBI Director Robert Mueller were about to resign – that Bush understood his presidency was at risk.

Cheney’s biggest contributions to the history of this episode are his matter of fact acknowledgment that the surveillance program was his initiative, that Addington drafted and held the only copy of its crucial documents, and that he disagreed with Bush’s decision to give in to “threats of resignation.” Cheney urged Bush to stand his ground, and he clearly implies that the president lost his nerve.

Bush tells it differently. “I had to make a big decision, and fast,” he wrote in his memoir. “Some in the White House believed I should stand on my powers under Article II of the Constitution and suffer the walkout…. I was willing to defend the powers of the presidency under Article II. But not at any cost. I thought about the Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973, when President Richard Nixon’s firing of Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox led his attorney general and deputy attorney general to resign. That was not a historical crisis I was eager to replicate.”

The Bush-Cheney relationship never fully recovered from that day. Bush wrote, without naming Cheney, that he “made clear to my advisers that I never wanted to be blindsided like that again.” March 11, 2004 was the day the president of the United States discovered that the vice president’s zeal could lead him off a cliff…