James Comey, the 6 foot 8 inch former U.S. Deputy Attorney General who, in March 2004, stood figuratively and literally between President George W. Bush and the recertification of a NSA domestic intelligence program while Attorney General John Ashcroft was gravely ill, offered both criticism of the Bush administration’s counterterrrorism policies as well as optimism towards Barack Obama’s early efforts at the Department of Justice, at an event Tuesday afternoon at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
In the speech entitled, “Can We Talk? Seeking Common Ground in Fighting Terrorism,” Comey criticized the right wing – who he says used to be concerned about the size and power of the federal government, and should be aligned with the left who wish to fight the abuse of police powers and the infringement on civil liberties.
Comey also weaved subtle digs at the mindset of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism efforts throughout his talk. Comey referenced his friend Jack Goldsmith, author of the book The Terror Presidency, and says the Bush presidency forgot the difference between hard power and soft power in its power struggles with Congress. Comey added:
“There were people in the last administration who had a fairly expansive view of the presidential authority in all areas touching on national security and had a sense that Congress’ authority was much more limited than Congress thought it was…The wisest of our presidents, like Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, surrendered some of their hard power, or at least risked surrendering it, by inviting Congress into their, what you might otherwise argue is their exclusive sphere of control in national security. But, by doing that, gained more power in total, because the American people – a powerful, powerful force – are now supporting what you did.”
Regarding Bush’s definition of the fight against terrorism as a “war on terror,” Comey said, “This was a term I never liked. How do you have a war on a word like that? I think of it as counterterrorism, more narrowly.”
Regarding the limits of counterterrorism policy Comey said:
“It is simply not acceptable for a senior policy maker to say, “If the intelligence agencies say we need to do this,” – and, again fill in your own ‘this’ – but if the intelligence agencies say, “We need to do this,” and the lawyers say its legal, there’s nothing more to talk about.” There’s plenty more to talk about. There may be things that are legal and that are effective that we shouldn’t do. That is what a policymaker is charged with deciding. I could do it – the lawyers tell me it’s okay. The intelligence community tells me it will work. But that judgment cannot be abated and shifted either to the lawyers or to the intelligence operators. The policymakers owe that to the people they represent.”
Comey also offered examples that cut at the heart of “bumperstickering” that the far left engages in as well. The former Deputy Attorney General said of his time spent at the Department of Justice:
“I hope I don’t surprise you by saying this: I did not meet evil people. I did not meet people who were bent on shredding the Constitution of the United States. I did not meet people who thought the Bill of Rights was something to be trampled. I met some people with bad judgment. I met some people who reached conclusions that I thought were knucklehead conclusions. But I never met anybody who I didn’t believe thought they were acting in the best interest of the American people. Who were doing what they thought was the right thing to do to protect our country.”
With regards to Barack Obama, Comey said the new President has, “Credibility across the political spectrum.”
When asked if he thought President Obama’s policies were making the country weaker, as some critics like former Vice President Dick Cheney have charged, Comey replied:
“No, I don’t think that…Just look at the people he’s chosen. I like and respect Eric Holder a great deal. Just to make sure I never get invited to a Republican Party meeting again I sent a letter of support on his behalf. I happen to think he’s a good, honest person. People like that represent what I hope is the great middle on national security.”
As to what he thinks Barack Obama’s national security policy will look like, Comey offered:
“At the core, I think you’re going to continue to see two things: an aggressive effort to take the fight to where the bad guys are – and there’s no doubt where they are outside the United States – and to be vigilant and tough in the United States.”
Comey, to be sure, let there be no doubt that there are constant terrorist threats against the United States and many people bent on doing the country great harm. The former Deputy Attorney General stated there will be another terrorist attack in the U.S. and that “We cannot be safe; we can be safer.”
Comey recounted the “horrific” daily briefings about terrorist plots aimed at inflicting death and destruction against the country. The former Deputy Attorney General also cautioned about the release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.
“We need help from other countries to relocate them. Despite all the criticisms Guantanamo has gotten from a lot of our brothers and sisters in the family of nations, we haven’t gotten a lot of people step up and say, “We’ll take so-and-so.” Something has got to be done to incapacitate – there are some really bad people there…You just can’t let some of these people go or you’ll never be able to look people in the eye who suffer the next attack.”
With regards to the March 2004 episode where Comey had an encounter with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General Ashcroft lay seriously ill at George Washington University Hospital, Comey recounted these details:
“We had a disagreement about an intelligence program that I wouldn’t certify and – not that I remember the dates – but on March 10, 2004 the Attorney General was in the hospital, very ill, and his wife had refused all visitors and phone calls. I was being kept posted on his condition by his chief of staff, who’d hear from Mrs. Ashcroft.
I was on my way home sometime around 8 o’clock with my security detail. Back in those days I had a nice armored suburban and we were going on Constitution Avenue and I got a call from the Attorney General’s chief of staff saying that Mr. Card and Mr. Gonzales were on their way to the hospital to see the Attorney General and he believed – the chief of staff – as I did instantly, that it related to the matter that I had taken a strong position on, and that they were going to seek to have me overruled.
I told my security detail, the U.S. Marshall Service, to get me to George Washington Hospital immediately and then I called (FBI Director) Bob Mueller who was at dinner with his wife and told him what was happening and he said, “I’ll be there right now.” So he ran out of the restaurant and got in his armored suburban and started heading there. I called my chief of staff and said, “Get everybody to the hospital.” He started calling staff members, “Get to George Washington Hospital now.” And, I didn’t know why I did that. I grew up in a culture in New York where if one of your colleagues was in trouble, a message went out: “All hands.” And that meant everybody drop what you’re doing and go. Got to help.
And so we went there and I ran up the stairs and got there first. And went into the dark room. And John Ashcroft was there and his wife was standing there and he was very sick. And I tried to talk to him and wasn’t getting much progress and told him what I thought was happening and sat down to wait. And then my two advisers on this (Jack) Goldsmith and Pat Philben came and stood by and we just waited. And then Card and Gonzales came in and spoke to the Attorney General and had an exchange and they turned and left. And right after they left Director Mueller arrived.”
Comey also corrected the record stating that he had never threatened to resign to President Bush when he was being pressured to recertify the domestic surveillance program, though he says he made it clear to the President how strongly he felt about not certifying the program.
Note: Coleen Rowley, former FBI agent and 2006 DFL candidate for Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, was in attendance at the event. Rowley was a whistleblower of the Bureau’s mishandling of information prior to the 9/11 attacks. She retired from the FBI in 2004.
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