WASHINGTON — James B. Comey, then the acting U.S. attorney general, was on his way home one night in March 2004 when he got an urgent call from the office on his cellphone.
The distraught wife of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, who was recovering in the hospital from gallbladder surgery, had called the Justice Department to report that her husband was about to get two uninvited guests. The visitors were two top aides to President Bush, and they wanted Ashcroft's signature on a secret national security directive that Comey had rejected only a short time before.
"I was very upset. I was angry," Comey told a Senate panel Tuesday. And he was determined to get to the hospital first.
Thus began one of the most unusual episodes in Bush's first term, a showdown over warrantless wiretapping that nearly brought the resignations of Ashcroft and several other top administration officials until the president intervened.
The saga of the race to Ashcroft's bedside left senators amazed. While the hospital encounter had been described previously in general terms, Comey's was the first eyewitness account, and offered new and dramatic insight.
Comey got to the hospital first and Ashcroft didn't sign the document. But it was a close call, Comey said. "I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man," he said.
His story was more than just an insider's anecdote: One of the White House officials who arrived at Ashcroft's bedside was Alberto R. Gonzales, whose performance as attorney general is receiving critical attention in Congress.
Comey's testimony -- at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing called to scrutinize the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year -- added fuel to the debate about whether Gonzales is fit to run the Justice Department.
"I would say what happened in that hospital room crystallized Mr. Gonzales' view about the rule of law: that he holds it in minimum low regard," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leading Gonzales critic, said at the hearing. "It's hard to understand after hearing this story how Atty. Gen. Gonzales could remain as attorney general, how any president -- Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative -- could allow him to continue."
The Justice Department on Tuesday declined to address the testimony of its former No. 2 official.
"We cannot comment on internal discussions that may or may have not taken place concerning classified intelligence activities," spokesman Dean Boyd said. He added that the program had been subject to "vigorous" oversight.
At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow told reporters that Bush has "full confidence in Alberto Gonzales." He refused to discuss Comey's testimony, which he described as "old conversations."
"You've got somebody who's got splashy testimony on Capitol Hill. Good for him," Snow said.
Comey's testimony came a day after his successor, Paul McNulty, announced that he planned to resign as deputy attorney general this summer, making him the fourth Justice official to step down since the U.S. attorney purge became public earlier this year. McNulty cited the financial burden of having college-age children, but he was known to have been dismayed by how the firings were handled, and has alleged that he was left out of the loop by Gonzales aides until the two-year process was almost complete.
Democrats have alleged the firings were calculated to manipulate public corruption cases in a way that would benefit Republicans.
Gonzales struck back at McNulty on Tuesday and attempted to shift some of the blame to his departing aide, saying that he relied on McNulty more than any other aide to decide which prosecutors were to be fired. "You have to remember, at the end of the day, the recommendations reflected the views of the deputy attorney general. He signed off on the names," Gonzales told reporters at a National Press Club event. "And he would know better than anyone else."
On Capitol Hill, Comey took pains not to identify what he termed the "classified program" that prompted the race to the hospital. But lawmakers said they believed he was referring to the Terrorist Surveillance Program that the Bush administration secretly launched after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The electronic eavesdropping program, administered through the National Security Agency, has swept up international phone and e-mail correspondence of persons in the U.S., and has been of great importance in anti-terrorism investigations, administration officials have said.
But the program also sparked controversy because, at first, it was conducted without the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court -- a tribunal created under a 1978 law to monitor domestic spying in the U.S. after Watergate and other abuses. Bending to criticism that the plan was of dubious legality, the Bush administration agreed in January to submit wiretap petitions under the program to the FISA court.