Alberto Gonzales and the forgetful terrorists

The attorney general says the U.S. shouldn't keep reminding al-Qaida that it's trying to monitor its calls.

Published February 7, 2006 2:41PM (EST)

The Bush administration has insisted that the New York Times' report on its warrantless spying program has hampered the government's intelligence-gathering abilities and put Americans at greater risk of terrorist attack. At the urging of Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions and John Cornyn, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales assured the Senate Monday that the Justice Department is investigating the source of the leaks to the Times and will make "the appropriate decisions regarding a subsequent prosecution."

But along the way, Gonzales verged off the talking points in a way that isn't particularly helpful for the argument that the White House wants to make. Sen. Joseph Biden asked Gonzales whether -- leaks or no leaks -- al-Qaida members wouldn't just assume that the United States was trying to monitor their calls. Gonzales' response: Why, yes they would.

"When the director of the CIA says this should really damage our intel capabilities, I would defer to that statement," Gonzales said. But then he added: "I think, based on my experience, it is true -- you would assume that the enemy is presuming that we are engaged in some kind of surveillance."

So how did the New York Times report create the kind of harm that might warrant jailing reporters and whistle-blowers? While terrorists may be able to plan sophisticated attacks on American soil, Gonzales said they have a hard time remembering that we're listening in on their calls. "If they're not reminded about it all the time in newspapers and in stories," Gonzales says, "they sometimes forget."

Gonzales said he has been "amazed" by some of the things those forgetful terrorists say on the telephone. "And so," he says, "when you keep sticking it in their face that we're involved in some kind of surveillance, even if it's unclear in these stories, it can't help but make a difference, I think."

Biden suggested that Americans would be lucky to be up against such bumbling evildoers. We've got another suggestion to make. If the problem is all the reminding, then maybe George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and the Justice Department and the attorney general and Karl Rove and Scott McClellan and Michael Hayden ought to be doing a little less of it.

By Tim Grieve

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

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