Comey Tried to Limit NSA Surveillance Program:
The New York Times has a fascinating article today about efforts by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to limit or even block the NSA surveillance program back in 2004, when Comey was acting Attorney General:
  A top Justice Department official objected in 2004 to aspects of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program and refused to sign on to its continued use amid concerns about its legality and oversight, according to officials with knowledge of the tense internal debate. The concerns appear to have played a part in the temporary suspension of the secret program.
  The concerns prompted two of President Bush's most senior aides - Andrew H. Card Jr., his chief of staff, and Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel and now attorney general - to make an emergency visit to a Washington hospital in March 2004 to discuss the program's future and try to win the needed approval from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was hospitalized for gallbladder surgery, the officials said.
  The unusual meeting was prompted because Mr. Ashcroft's top deputy, James B. Comey, who was acting as attorney general in his absence, had indicated he was unwilling to give his approval to certifying central aspects of the program, as required under the White House procedures set up to oversee it.
  . . .
  . . . [I]n early 2004, about the time of the hospital visit, the White House suspended parts of the program for several months and moved ahead with more stringent requirements on the security agency on how the program was used, in part to guard against abuses.
  The concerns within the Justice Department appear to have led, at least in part, to the decision to suspend and revamp the program, officials said. The Justice Department then oversaw a secret audit of the surveillance program.
  I'm not surprised by this; I would imagine there was a great deal of internal disagreement among advisors as to the legality of the NSA program. I'm also not surprised that James Comey played an important role in objecting to the program. In October 2004, seven months after Comey's objection, a Legal Times story by Vanessa Blum disclosed the extent of the tension between Comey and the White House over the former's perceived "neutrality and independence." According to the Legal Times story, that independence took Comey out of the running for the Attorney General slot when Ashcroft stepped aside:
  There are a number of candidates who could be tapped to replace John Ashcroft as attorney general if President George W. Bush wins re-election. But perhaps the most obvious choice, Deputy AG James Comey, almost certainly will not be.
  Since his confirmation as the No. 2 Justice Department official in December 2003, sources close to the department say Comey has had a strained relationship with some of the president's top advisers . . . .
  . . .
  Earlier this year, after the disclosure of internal administration memos that seemed to condone the torture of suspected terrorists overseas, Comey pushed aggressively for the Justice Department's memos to be released to the media and for controversial legal analyses regarding the use of torture to be rewritten.
  In a deeply partisan administration that places a high premium on political loyalty, sources say Comey — a career prosecutor and a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York — is not viewed as a team player.
  "[Comey] has shown insufficient political savvy," says the former official. "The perception is that he has erred too much on the side of neutrality and independence."
  Instead of picking Comey to replace Ashcroft, the President selected Gonzales -- who as White House Counsel had already committed to the view that the NSA surveillance program was legal. (Of course, it's hard to say if the NSA program played an important role in the White House's thinking on the AG slot -- it may just be a reflection of broader dynamics and priorities rather than a cause of them. Still, it's interesting to speculate on how the pieces might fit together.)