The political Mr. Comey

Yet the biggest of Mr. Comey’s misjudgments are the ones for which he gets the highest accolades from his media admirers. In March 2004 Mr. Comey raced to the hospital bedside of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to stop his boss from signing off on a periodic reauthorization of the “warrantless wiretap” surveillance program authorized by President Bush shortly after 9/11.

Mr. Comey later told Congress that he had squared off against then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who had come to the hospital to get Mr. Ashcroft’s signature for the still-top secret program, and that Mr. Ashcroft had refused to sign. He also testified that both he and FBI Director Robert Mueller had threatened to resign if Mr. Bush reauthorized the program without making certain changes. Which is what Mr. Bush agreed to do a few days later.

Mr. Comey’s hospital theatrics have since been spun—above all by Mr. Comey—as a case of a brave and honest civil servant standing up to an out-of-control White House seeking to take advantage of a sick man for morally dubious and even criminal ends.

Yet the reason the White House needed Mr. Ashcroft’s signature in the first place was that President Bush had subjected the surveillance program to a stringent 45-day reauthorization schedule (with the knowledge and approval of senior members of Congress), and Mr. Ashcroft had signed off on the same program multiple times before having an apparent change of heart shortly before the March incident.