President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program was so questionable that a top Justice Department official refused for a time to reauthorize it, sparking a battle with top White House officials at the bedside of an ailing attorney general, a Senate panel was told Tuesday.

Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that he refused to recertify the program because Attorney General John Ashcroft had reservations about its legality just before falling ill with pancreatitis in March 2004.

Comey, the acting attorney general during Ashcroft's absence, said then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card responded by trying to get Ashcroft to sign the recertification from his bed at George Washington University Hospital.

During that dramatic meeting, also attended by Comey, Ashcroft lifted his head off the pillow and appeared reluctant to sign the document, pointing out that Comey held the powers of the office.

Gonzales and Card then left the hospital room, Comey said.

"I was angry," Comey told the panel. "I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general."

The hospital room confrontation had been previously reported, but this was the first time Comey has spoken about it publicly.