Gonzales to the Senate: I see why you’re confused

The attorney general tries to explain himself, again.

Topics: Department of Justice, War Room, Espionage,

When we find ourselves confused about something, it’s usually because we don’t know enough. For Alberto Gonzales, it apparently works the other way around. In a new letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the embattled attorney general says he understands how people could think his previous testimony has been misleading — especially if they actually know something about the subject matter he was addressing.

Let’s take this from the beginning.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing back in February 2006, Sen. Chuck Schumer asked Gonzales a series of questions about “the NSA program,” including whether then Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey had “expressed grave reservations about the NSA program and at least once refused to give it his blessing.” Gonzales responded by saying that “there has not been any serious disagreement — and I think this is accurate — there has not been any serious disagreement about the program that the president has confirmed. There have been disagreements about other matters regarding operations which I cannot get into … The point I want to make is that, to my knowledge, none of the reservations dealt with the program that we’re talking about today. They dealt with operational capabilities that we’re not talking about today.”

But in May, Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee that there had, in fact, been a “serious disagreement,” including a hospital-room showdown and threats of resignations among high-ranking officials. The subject of the “serious disagreement” wasn’t immediately clear: It could have been the president’s warrantless wiretapping program — the thing Gonzales calls “the program that the president has confirmed” — or it could have been some other classified intelligence operation.

Gonzales seemed to put that question to rest in early June when he said at a news briefing that Comey’s testimony — and hence, the “serious disagreement” — “related to a highly classified program which the president confirmed to the American people some time ago.” But when Gonzales appeared again before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 24, he offered the opposite explanation. This time around, he said that the disagreement Comey had described “related to other intelligence activities” and “was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president confirmed.” Pressed by Schumer to say unequivocally that the disagreement Comey described wasn’t about the president’s Terrorist Surveillance Program, Gonzales hedged repeatedly, then finally said: “It was not. It was about other intelligence activities.”

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Confused? Well, sure you are: You actually know something about the subject matter being discussed and the various and contradictory ways Gonzales has discussed it. Which brings us back to the letter Gonzales sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday evening.

In his letter, Gonzales says he’s “deeply concerned” with “suggestions” that his testimony “may have been misleading,” and then he tries to explain it all away: “I recognize that the use of the term Terrorist Surveillance Program and my shorthand reference to the ‘program’ publicly ‘described by the president’ may have created confusion, particularly for those who are knowledgeable about the NSA activities authorized in the presidential order described by the [director of national intelligence], and who may be accustomed to thinking of them or referring to them together as a single NSA ‘program.’”

Translation, we think: The “NSA program” is actually two secret surveillance programs — or maybe more! — and when Gonzales said that there had been no “serious disagreement” about the “program that the president has confirmed,” he meant only the program that he meant. Which is all well and good, except when we look again at Gonzales’ June 5 characterization of Comey’s testimony as being “related to a highly classified program which the president confirmed to the American people some time ago.” Gonzales has since said that he “misspoke” when he described Comey’s testimony that way. But the funny thing is, FBI Director Robert Mueller has described it pretty much exactly the same way, and he hasn’t said that he did any misspeaking when he did so.

Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy says he’s going to give Gonzales one more chance to clarify his testimony. “The attorney general’s legalistic explanation of his misleading testimony under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week is not what one should expect from the top law enforcement officer of the United States,” Leahy said in a statement. “It is time for full candor to enforce the law and promote justice, rather than word parsing.”

Leahy’s wrong about that last part: It isn’t time for “full candor” from the attorney general; it’s long past time for it.

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

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