Blissful Ignorance

George W. Bush admits an embarrassing lack of knowledge about one of the more controversial parts of his presidency

By: Shane Harris

I’m reading George W. Bush’s stab at a memoir, Decision Points, and I’m not sure what’s more extraordinary: That the former President has almost nothing new to say about the campaign of domestic surveillance he authorized after the 9/11 attacks, or that for a week in 2004, Bush didn’t even know his attorney general was in the hospital and that he’d come to the conclusion the program was breaking the law.

I hadn’t anticipated Bush would expound at length on why he let the National Security Agency bypass a law prohibiting warrantless eavesdropping on Americans. But NSA’s surveillance operations marked one of the most controversial chapters of his administration, and I wasn’t expecting his account to be this pithy, breezy, and in the end, clueless.

In 481 pages, Bush devotes a mere nine to the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program. Most of what Bush recounts we already knew from journalists: that in October 2001, a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he authorized the NSA to monitor so-called “dirty [phone] numbers” of terrorists who contacted people inside the United States. But Bush fails to acknowledge that this program, initially intended to function as an early-warning system, soon evolved into an unchecked campaign to monitor millions of ordinary Americans’ communications. By leaving that out, Bush reveals himself as a man who’s either afraid of his role in history or a President who didn’t know what was going on inside his own administration.

Bush dismisses the public debate that engulfed the program: “The left responded with hysteria.” Of the passionate arguments within his own administration about what he’d told the NSA to do, Bush says only that “there was no shortage of disagreements.” And Bush claims that in 2008, after Congress brought the surveillance under tighter control, that those changes “essentially ended the debate over the legality of our surveillance activities.”

The President can’t mean this. Mike McConnell, Bush’s former intelligence chief who led the 2008 push to re-write the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, nearly ruined his reputation in the process. In those tense negotiations, lawmakers believed McConnell and the White House were acting in bad faith, and they told McConnell so. The “bipartisan support” for the administration’s position was the result of shrewd, strong-arm tactics by McConnell and his legal advisers, suggesting that lawmakers who opposed the bill would look weak on terrorism. McConnell proudly told me this was so. Surely he told the President.

Or maybe not. The only revealing passage in Bush’s few pages on surveillance shows that in the program’s most desperate hour, the President was out of the loop. In early March 2004, the entire senior leadership of the FBI and the Justice Department threatened to resign over a part of the surveillance that they thought was illegal. Bush doesn’t say what that was in his memoir, but my sources tell me it involved that large-scale collection and mining of people’s phone and e-mail records.

The dispute stemmed from a now-famous chain of events, publicized by former Washington Post reporters Barton Gellman and Jo Becker. As he was about to withhold his recertification of the program on March 4, 2004, Attorney General Ashcroft suddenly fell ill and was admitted to George Washington University Hospital, where he eventually had emergency gall-bladder surgery. His deputy, James Comey, took over as acting attorney general and "communicated to the relevant parties at the White House" that Comey wouldn't sign off on the TSP, as he testified to Congress in 2007.

But now Bush says that only on the morning of March 10, the day before the program was due to expire, did he find out from his chief of staff, Andy Card, and from Vice President Dick Cheney, that there was a dispute over the TSP's future. And not until later that day did Card tell him that Ashcroft was in the hospital. The attorney general of the United States was possibly dying and for nearly a week the President knew nothing about it.

Every morning, Bush received a terrorism-threat update from Ashcroft and the FBI director. Didn’t the President notice Ashcroft’s absence? Bush says he didn’t learn until March 12 that Comey was in charge at Justice. “I was stunned,” the President admits. “Nobody told me.”

On March 10, with the program about to expire, Bush faced one of his “decision points” and signed off on the program without the attorney general’s blessing. Eventually, he relented to Comey’s demands and modified the surveillance so the officials who had threatened to resign could live with it—precisely how, we still don’t know. According to Bush, Card was in the dark as much as he. And nowhere does Bush explain what Cheney knew, when he knew it, and what he may have withheld from the President.

We’ve known for some years about Comey’s reservations and the fact that Bush didn’t realize how much trouble was brewing in his upper ranks. But only now do we find out from the President himself how ignorant he was of the imbroglio threatening his administration and how little he knew about who was running important programs. Many chroniclers of the Bush years, myself included, had long suspected that the President wasn’t in the driver’s seat on many important national-security decisions. I was stunned to find out that on this one, Bush wasn’t even in the car.

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