Top-level administration officials four years ago told President George W. Bush he as “breaking the law” by ordering the National Security Agency to spy on Americans and warned the President that his actions could bring his administration down.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet and others begged Bush to reconsider his executive order giving the NSA authority to wiretap phone calls and monitor emails of American citizens but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
“Mr. President, I fear you are heading down a course that could doom your administration,” Powell told Bush in a meeting in early 2002. “I urge you to reconsider.” Powell also argued against Bush’s plans to turn Pentagon spies loose on American antiwar groups, saying “such actions don’t belong in America.”
Powell wasn’t the only one worried about the legality of wiretaps. Then deputy attorney general James D. Comey, acting as attorney general while John Ashcroft was hospitalized, refused to sign off on Bush’s executive order, prompting then White House Counsel, and now attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, to visit Ashcroft at his hospital bed in a failed attempt to get the AG to overturn his deputy.
Ashcroft, however, stood by Comey and told Gonzales that he could not condone the spying, even though he had authored the controversial, and rights-robbing, USA Patriot Act.
“This is not legal and the President is exceeding his authority,” Ashcroft said. “Jim (Comey) is right to oppose it.”
Then CIA director George Tenet, in a stormy meeting with Bush, told the President that use of the NSA to spy on Americans was a direct violation of the agency’s charter.
“This is illegal and a flagrant misuse of the agency and its technology,” Tenet said.
Those who opposed Bush on his actions, which the President claimed were justified under his powers as a “wartime commander-in-chief,” are no longer part of the administration. Bush fired Tenet (publicly, the CIA direction was allowed to resign). Powell and Ashcroft resigned shortly after Bush began his second term. Comey quit in disgust.
Those privy to the contentious White House meetings where all tried in vain to talk Bush out of his reckless course of action say the President’s allies in using the NSA to spy on Americans were Vice President Dick Cheney and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, the man Bush tapped to replace Ashcroft.
Powell, top aides say privately, considering resigning early in Bush’s first term because of what he considered the President’s “reckless and irresponsible actions,” but stayed on because he still felt he could play a moderating role with the extremists in the administration.
“As a career soldier, Gen. Powell felt a duty to serve is country even when that service meant answering to those he considered wrong,” says a longtime aide who served with the general at the State Department as well as when Powell chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “He was a moral man trapped in an immoral nest of vipers.”