In riveting Senate testimony that one Republican senator said had "some characteristics of the Saturday Night Massacre," the former No. 2 man at the Department of Justice testified Tuesday about the lengths the White House went to in 2004 to get the reauthorization of the administration's terrorist surveillance program, even though top Justice officials advised against such action.
At one point during the reauthorization process, two of President Bush's top officials secretly visited then Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was in an intensive care unit suffering from a severe case of pancreatitis, and pressured him to change his mind.
Hearing the testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the story was a "shocking one," adding "it almost makes you gulp."
Justice Department Official Recounts White House Pressure
The story was told by James Comey, who served as the deputy attorney general from 2003-2005.
Comey recounted how in March of 2004, he and Ashcroft discussed their concerns about the "legality" of the program and decided that the Department of Justice would neither certify it nor support its renewal because legal advisers could not find an adequate legal basis for the program.
Hours after making that decision, Ashcroft was rushed to the hospital into intensive care and Comey was made acting attorney general.
With Ashcroft absent from all deliberations, Comey told the White House that the Department of Justice would "not certify the program," according to Comey.
Comey then testified to his utter shock that as he was headed home one night six days later he learned that -- without informing him -- then White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales planned to visit the hospital and talk to Ashcroft even though Comey was serving as acting attorney general during Ashcroft's illness.
Comey immediately told his security detail to change course, flash the emergency lights on their vehicle and divert directly to the hospital.
Comey described the scene upon arriving at the hospital, telling the committee, "I got out of the car and ran up -- literally ran up the stairs -- with my security detail."
Comey was concerned that the White House was attempting "to do an end run around the acting attorney general and to get a very sick man to approve something that the Department of Justice had already concluded should not be approved."
According to Comey, he entered the darkened hospital room and noticed immediately that Ashcroft was "pretty bad off."
Comey was joined by some top level Justice Department staffers he had called and the group waited for the arrival of the White House officials.
Comey said "it was only a matter of minutes" that the door opened and Gonzales and Card entered and addressed Ashcroft in an attempt to seek his approval of the matter.
Ashcroft had been in intensive care for six days. Comey was stunned by the conversation. He testified, "I was very upset. I was angry."
Comey said the White House was engaged in an effort to address Ashcroft even though he "did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me."
And then Ashcroft spoke.
According to Comey, "[Ashcroft] lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter."
Comey said Ashcroft supported the position of Comey and "then laid his head back down on the pillow, seemed spent, and said to them, 'But that doesn't matter, because I'm not the attorney general.'"
After Gonzales and Card left the hospital room, Card telephoned Comey and demanded that he come to the White House immediately.
Comey responded that he was upset by Card's conduct in the hospital room and, according to Comey, Card responded, "What conduct? We were just there to wish him well."
Comey refused to go to the White House without bringing Ted Olson, the solicitor general of the United States, as a witness.
'Angry' Acting Attorney General Threatened With Resignations
Later at the White House, accompanied by Olson, Comey told Card that there would be a large number of resignations at the Department of Justice if the program was going to go forward without the department's authorization.
Those resignations would include that of the director of the FBI Robert Mueller, Comey and maybe even Ashcroft once he felt better.
Ultimately, the next day on March 12, President Bush himself met with Comey and Mueller and came to their defense in opposition to his own vice president and senior White House officials.
According to Comey, the president said "to do the right thing…and so we then set out do that. And we did that."
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Tony Snow declined to discuss Comey's testimony, saying, "You've got someone who has splashy testimony on Capitol Hill, we are not going to talk about internal White House deliberation."
ABC's Jason Ryan contributed to this report.