WASHINGTON — It just gets worse and worse. We already knew that Alberto Gonzales — who, unbelievably, remains our attorney general — was willing to construe the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions however George W. Bush and Dick Cheney wanted. We knew he was willing to politicize the Justice Department, if that was what the White House wanted. Now we learn that Gonzales also was willing to accost a seriously ill man in his hospital room to get his signature on a dodgy justification for unprecedented domestic surveillance.

The man Gonzales harried on his sickbed was his predecessor as attorney general, John Ashcroft. The episode — recounted this week in congressional testimony by Ashcroft’s former deputy, James Comey — sounds like something from Hollywood, not Washington. It’s hard not to think of that scene in “The Godfather” when Don Corleone is left alone in his hospital bed, vulnerable to his enemies, and Michael has to save him.

It was the night of March 10, 2004. Several days earlier, Ashcroft had been stricken with a severe case of pancreatitis and was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where his gallbladder was removed and he was placed in intensive care. Ashcroft’s wife had banned all visitors and phone calls.

Ashcroft’s illness came amid a fight between the White House and the Justice Department over the program of warrantless domestic electronic surveillance that Bush had authorized following the 9/11 attacks. Justice had reviewed the program and expressed doubts about its legality.

Comey, serving as acting attorney general because of Ashcroft’s illness, refused to sign off on a reauthorization of the program until changes were made. The night before the current authorization was to expire, Comey said, he was being driven home when he got a call from Ashcroft’s chief of staff, who had just heard from Ashcroft’s wife that Gonzales, then serving as White House counsel, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card were on their way to the hospital. They wanted to get the ailing Ashcroft to overrule Comey and sign the reauthorization.

Comey ordered his driver to turn around and managed to get to the hospital first. Rather than wait for the elevator, he ran up the stairs. “And Mrs. Ashcroft was standing by the hospital bed,” he testified, “Mr. Ashcroft was lying down in the bed, the room was darkened. And I immediately began speaking to him, trying to orient him as to time and place, and try to see if he could focus on what was happening, and it wasn’t clear to me that he could. He seemed pretty bad off.”

Gonzales was carrying an envelope when he and Card arrived. Gonzales told Ashcroft they were there “to seek his approval for a matter,” Comey recalled. Ashcroft refused to sign anything, told them why, and said that, in any event, Comey was the acting attorney general with the full powers of the office.

“I was very upset,” Comey said. “I was angry. I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.”

Now let’s fast-forward a couple of years — to February 2006, after the secret surveillance program had become public. Gonzales, testifying before Congress, said there had been no serious disagreement within the administration about the legality of conducting such widespread electronic eavesdropping without seeking court warrants.

In fact, there was nearly an insurrection. Comey and other high-ranking Justice Department officials threatened to resign if the White House continued the surveillance program as it then was constituted. “Mr. Ashcroft’s chief of staff asked me something that meant a great deal to him,” Comey testified, “and that is that I not resign until Mr. Ashcroft was well enough to resign with me.” Ultimately, Bush and Cheney agreed to modifications that addressed Justice’s concerns.

Gonzales’ testimony in 2006 was that officials expressed no reservations that “dealt with the program that we are talking about today.” Presumably he was being extraordinarily careful with his words — “the program that we are talking about today” had already been modified, two years earlier, to avoid what threatened to become a Wednesday Night Massacre. Before those changes, the attorney general neglected to tell Congress, the program had caused a legal riot.

The image I can’t get out of my head is of Alberto Gonzales carrying a document for Ashcroft’s signature into the man’s hospital room, attempting a sneaky end-run around the deputy whom Ashcroft left in charge of the department, knowing full well that Ashcroft was seriously ill and almost certainly medicated. What did he intend to do, guide the man’s hand?

This is the attorney general of the United States, ladies and gentlemen. Heaven help us.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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