Gonzales: I didn’t mean what I said when I said what I said

The attorney general backtracks on assurances he gave the Senate on warrantless spying.

Topics: War Room, Arlen Specter, D-Pa., Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., Espionage,

When Alberto Gonzales appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy asked him to say when it was that the White House first decided that its warrantless spying program was authorized by the use-of-force authorization Congress passed in the wake of 9/11.

“From the very outset” and “before the program actually commenced,” Gonzales said. A few minutes later, he told Leahy: “Sir, it’s always been our position that the president has the authority, under the authorization to use military force [resolution] and under the Constitution.”

Turns out, that wasn’t true. As the Washington Post is reporting, Gonzales has now sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee in which he seeks to “clarify” his comments. When the attorney general said that the White House believed that the use-of-force resolution authorized warrantless spying “before the program actually began,” he didn’t really mean, you know, “before the program actually began.” “These statements may give the misimpression that the Department’s legal analysis has been static over time,” Gonzales writes.

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In fact, a government source tells the Post, the White House didn’t conjure up the use-of-force resolution as a legal basis for the spying until long after the program began — raising the possibility, clearly suggested by the Leahy question Gonzales answered falsely — that the argument was an after-the-fact justification for a program the White House was pursuing anyway.

Gonzales’ letter also suggests that the administration’s surveillance program may go farther than the White House has acknowledged so far. When Gonzales told the committee that Bush had authorized the warrantless spying program, “and that is all he has authorized,” the attorney general says he didn’t mean to suggest that the president hadn’t authorized other things, too. “I did not and could not address … any other classified intelligence activities,” he says now.

Would it be a good time to mention that over the objections of Leahy and other Democrats, Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter and the other Republicans on the committee allowed Gonzales to testify last month without taking an oath to tell the truth?

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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