James Comey, Obama’s Pick to Lead the FBI, Stood Up Against the Bush Legal Opinion on ‘Enhanced Interrogations’

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
May 30, 2013, 8:05 a.m.

James Comey, Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­por­ted pick to head the FBI, is a Re­pub­lic­an. But he’s most known for be­ing a vo­cal dis­sent­er work­ing as the deputy at­tor­ney gen­er­al dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. In one dra­mat­ic in­cid­ent when Pres­id­ent George W. Bush was seek­ing re-ap­prov­al of the wiretap­ping pro­gram, Comey stone­walled the ad­min­is­tra­tion at the hos­pit­al bed­side of At­tor­ney Gen­er­al John Ash­croft. “I was angry,” Comey test­i­fied about the in­cid­ent. “I thought I had just wit­nessed an ef­fort to take ad­vant­age of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the at­tor­ney gen­er­al.”

But that was not the only time he spoke out against the ex­ec­ut­ive.

In 2005, the Justice De­part­ment was com­pil­ing a leg­al memo on “en­hanced in­ter­rog­a­tion” (which some would call tor­ture). And Comey wasn’t happy with it — at all. In e-mails with his then-Chief of Staff Chuck Rosen­berg, he voiced strongly worded dis­sent that the ad­min­is­tra­tion would come to re­gret its push to al­low these tech­niques to con­tin­ue.

In 2009, The New York Times ob­tained the e-mails. Be­low are se­lec­tions. Read the whole chain of e-mails at The New York Times:

The AG [At­tor­ney Gen­er­al] ex­plained that he was un­der great pres­sure from the Vice Pres­id­ent [Dick Cheney] to com­plete both memos, and that the Pres­id­ent had even raised it last week …

Yes­ter­day morn­ing, I got the most re­cent draft of the second opin­ion and read it. My con­cerns were not al­layed, only heightened. Patrick [a Justice De­part­ment law­yer] felt just as strongly that this was wrong….

I told [Al­berto Gonzales’s chief of staff] that the people who were ap­ply­ing pres­sure now would not be there when the ___ hit the fan. Rather, they would simply say they had only asked for an opin­ion. It would be Al­berto Gonzales in the bull­seye. I told him that my job was to pro­tect the De­part­m­wnt [sic] and the AG and that I could not agree to this be­cause it was wrong. I told him it could be made right in a week, which was a blink of an eye, and that nobody would un­der­stand at a hear­ing three years from now why we didn’t take that week….

… It leaves me feel­ing sad for the De­part­ment and the AG. I don’t know what more is to be done, giv­en that I have already sub­mit­ted my resig­na­tion. I just hope that when all of this comes out, this in­sti­tu­tion doesn’t take the hit, but rather taken by those in­di­vidu­als who oc­cu­pied po­s­i­tions at the OLC [The Of­fice of Leg­al Coun­sel] and OAG and were too weak to stand up for the prin­ciples that un­drgird [sic] the rest of this great in­sti­tu­tion….

People may think it strange to hear me say I miss John Ash­croft, but as in­tim­id­ated as he could be by the WH, when it came to crunch-time, he stood up, even from an in­tens­ive care hos­pit­al bed. That back­bone is gone.

Matt Berman contributed to this article.
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