Vice President Cheney convened a meeting in the Situation Room at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, March 10, 2004, with just one day left before the warrantless domestic surveillance program was set to expire. Around him were National Security Agency Director Michael V. Hayden, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and the Gang of Eight -- the four ranking members of the House and the Senate, and the chairmen and vice chairmen of the intelligence committees.
Even now, three months into a legal rebellion at the Justice Department, President Bush was nowhere in the picture. He was stumping in the battleground state of Ohio, talking up the economy.
With a nod from Cheney, Hayden walked through the program's vital mission. Gonzales said top lawyers at the NSA and Justice had green-lighted the program from the beginning. Now Attorney General John D. Ashcroft was in the hospital, and James B. Comey, Ashcroft's deputy, refused to certify that the surveillance was legal.
That was misleading at best. Cheney and Gonzales knew that Comey spoke for Ashcroft as well. They also knew, but chose not to mention, that Jack L. Goldsmith, chief of the Office of Legal Counsel at Justice, had been warning of major legal problems for months.