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The Secrecy Excuse

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 27, 2007; 1:16 PM

An apparent lie by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales could be easily cleared up, White House spokesman Tony Snow says -- but doing so would require discussing matters that must remain classified in order to protect national security.

The information that Snow and the White House are intent on keeping secret, however, has to do with surveillance activities that President Bush abandoned more than three years ago after Justice Department officials concluded they were illegal. In other words, the government isn't doing this stuff anymore, nor -- one would expect -- will it do so again.

The purpose of classification is to maintain operational secrecy for critical national security programs -- not cover up governmental misdeeds. At least that's the theory. (As I've noted before, Bush aides have repeatedly leaked or declassified secret intelligence findings that served their political agenda -- while asserting the need to keep secret the information that would tend to discredit them.) If the White House believed that disclosing information about a now-defunct program would clear Gonzales, don't you think we'd know it by now?

Gonzales is in this bind because he told Congress in February 2006 that there had "not been any serious disagreement" within the administration about the program the White House dubbed the Terrorist Surveillance Program. And he continued to hew that line even after former deputy attorney general James Comey told senators about a March 2004 rebellion by top Justice Department officials and the White House's dramatic efforts to put it down (including a nighttime visit to then-attorney general John Aschroft's hospital bed).

The only way to reconcile Gonzales's statement with the emerging reality is to argue that there's a distinction between the Terrorist Surveillance Program and what Gonzales calls the "other intelligence activities" that Comey objected to. But if those "other intelligence activities" were just elements of the surveillance program, then the distinction is dishonest.

Furthermore, Gonzales's attempt to make such a distinction has been undermined in the last few days, most notably with FBI Director Robert Mueller's testimony yesterday that it was indeed the Terrorist Surveillance Program that was at issue during the visit to Ashcroft's hospital bed.

But none of this deters the White House, or Snow, from its defense of the attorney general.

Here's video of Snow talking with Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball last night. First, Matthews showed a clip from Mueller's exchange with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) at yesterday's House Judiciary Committee hearing about the Ashcroft hospital visit.

Matthews: "Everyone at home, watch this right now, and everyone can judge this for themselves. They don't have to listen to you or me. Watch everybody now and tell me whether you think that Mueller is saying to Congresswoman Jackson Lee that she's right in assuming that they're talking about the terrorist surveillance program particularly. Let's watch and listen.


"REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D), TEXAS: . . . have an understanding that the discussion was on TSP?

"ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: I had a understanding that the discussion was on an NSA Program, yes.

"LEE: I guess we use TSP, we use warrantless wiretapping, so would I be comfortable in saying that those were the items that were part of the discussion?

"MUELLER: It was -- the discussion was on a national -- an NSA program that has been much discussed, yes.


"MATTHEWS: Well, it seems to me, Tony, watching this -- and I mean objectively -- he's saying to her, Yes, you're right, it's the one that's been discussed for those last few days --

"SNOW: No, it --

"MATTHEWS: -- that's what we're talking about.

"SNOW: All I can tell you, Chris --

"MATTHEWS: What else could he possibly mean besides the word 'yes'?

"SNOW: What -- what he could possibly mean is it's a lot more complex and that she knows, or maybe she doesn't know, that there are a series of classified matters under conversation, and I can't go any further. Here I am, I got my hands tied, too. Members of Congress have been briefed in on this program, and they've been briefed in on the conversation, at least a small number of them have. But what's going on now is that people are trying to go ahead and take a little sliver of it, exploit it, and try to create a misperception here. And it's one of these things where you saw that the FBI director could not and did not answer in detail because he is not going to talk about highly classified matters.


"SNOW: And so it's going to be one of those things where people are free to draw their conclusions, but the problem is that it's going to be inappropriate because the only proper forum for discussing fully what was going on is in closed session.

"MATTHEWS: Well, then we'll never know.

"SNOW: That's probably right."

Snow later told Matthews that if he could only talk about classified information, "you [would] say, I cannot believe they tried to pull that stunt."

Finally Matthews had a warning for Snow: "[W]henever somebody doesn't want to say something that happened inside the White House, they scream national security. It doesn't always work."

Today's Coverage

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III yesterday contradicted the sworn testimony of his boss, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, by telling Congress that a prominent warrantless surveillance program was the subject of a dramatic legal debate within the Bush administration.

"Mueller's testimony appears to mark the first public confirmation from a Bush administration official that the National Security Agency's Terrorist Surveillance Program was at issue in an unusual nighttime visit by Gonzales to the hospital bedside of then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who was under sedation and recovering from surgery.

"Mueller's remarks to the House Judiciary Committee differed from testimony earlier in the week from Gonzales, who told a Senate panel that a legal disagreement aired at the hospital did not concern the NSA program. Details of the program, kept secret for four years, were confirmed by President Bush in December 2005, provoking wide controversy on Capitol Hill. . . .

"Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said in a statement that Gonzales's testimony and statements about the NSA program have been accurate, but that 'confusion is inevitable when complicated classified activities are discussed in a public forum.' . . .

"'The disagreement that occurred in March 2004 concerned the legal basis for intelligence activities that have not been publicly disclosed and that remain highly classified,' Roehrkasse said."

David Johnston and Scott Shane write in the New York Times that Mueller's "testimony was a serious blow to Mr. Gonzales. . . .

"The conflict underscored how Mr. Gonzales's troubles have expanded beyond accusations of improper political influence in the dismissal of United States attorneys to the handling of the eavesdropping program, in which Mr. Gonzales was significantly involved in his previous post as White House counsel."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The White House continued to defend Gonzales on Thursday, and denied Mueller had contradicted the attorney general's testimony. Presidential spokesman Tony Snow said lawmakers were manipulating the testimony of Gonzales and Mueller, who he said were limited in what they could say publicly about classified intelligence-gathering programs.

"'This is the latest in a long line of artful distortions by people who have spent the last six months hurling allegations at the attorney general. The FBI director didn't contradict the testimony,' Snow said. 'There are attempts in Congress to create a public discussion of classified programs. That's inappropriate. The president . . . maintains full confidence in the attorney general.'"

Perjury Investigation

As I mentioned in yesterday's column, four Senate Democrats yesterday demanded the appointment of a special counsel to investigate whether Gonzales has committed perjury.

Here is their letter to solicitor general Paul D. Clement (Gonzales is recused from investigations of his own conduct).

And in a letter to Gonzales, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy sent a copy of the transcript of the attorney general's most recent testimony, along with the admonition: "Please mark any changes you wish to make to correct, clarify or supplement your answers so that, consistent with your oath, they are the whole truth."

Subpoena Watch

Meanwhile, in U.S.-attorney news, Kathy Kiely and David Jackson write in USA Today: "The potential for a constitutional confrontation between the executive and legislative branches of government deepened Thursday, as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., subpoenaed the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove."

From a statement on Leahy's Web site (where the subpoenas themselves are also available): "The evidence shows that senior White House political operatives were focused on the political impact of federal prosecutions and whether federal prosecutors were doing enough to bring partisan voter fraud and corruption cases. It is obvious that the reasons given for the firings of these prosecutors were contrived as part of a cover up and that the stonewalling by the White House is part and parcel of that same effort. The Bush-Cheney White House continues to place great strains on our constitutional system of checks and balances. Not since the darkest days of the Nixon Administration have we seen efforts to corrupt federal law enforcement for partisan political gain and such efforts to avoid accountability."

Opinion Watch

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Over time, one becomes almost numb to this administration's relentless lies and can-you-top-this transgressions. A kind of 'outrage fatigue' sets in, accompanied by the knowledge that whatever it is that they've done this time, it could have been worse. . . .

"For me, at least, Gonzo is the perfect antidote to midsummer apathy. . . .

"The most generous interpretation is that Gonzo, fearful of facing a perjury rap, is insisting on an artificially and dishonestly narrow definition of 'the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced' -- leaving out 'intelligence activities' that any reasonable person, including Comey, would consider part of the program. The nice word for that would be dissembling.

"The not-so-nice word would be lying. Hence the call yesterday by a group of Senate Democrats for a perjury investigation.

"I hope they nail him."

Bloomberg columnist Ann Woolner notes a White House spokesman's statement that "every day this Congress gets a little more out of control," and writes: "Yes, it does. Getting Congress out from under Bush's control is precisely what voters had in mind last fall when they threw Republicans out and handed the Congress over to Democratic control.

"It's called checks and balances. And the White House, so accustomed to controlling Congress, controlling every inch of government, doesn't like it. . . .

"The White House may say it's an over-reaction for Senate Democrats to try to seek a perjury investigation of Gonzales. But what are they supposed to do? We are talking about the top law enforcement officer in the country who seems to have no regard for the truth. Or the law, for that matter. . . .

"Is Congress out of control? You bet. And it's about time."

Getting Out of Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he is personally engaged in developing contingency plans for a drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq and emphasized that those efforts constitute a 'priority' for the Pentagon.

"'Such planning is indeed taking place with my active involvement as well as that of senior military and civilian officials and our commanders in the field,' Gates said in a letter to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Such preparation for a troop reduction, he said, 'is not only appropriate, but essential.'

"His letter -- delivered by courier to Clinton's office on Wednesday evening -- sought to smooth over a series of tense exchanges between the Democratic presidential front-runner and the Pentagon. After Clinton wrote to Gates in May requesting a briefing on plans for a troop withdrawal, Pentagon policy chief Eric S. Edelman responded with a letter last week accusing her of reinforcing 'enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies' by discussing a timetable for withdrawal. Edelman, a career diplomat, moved in 2005 to the Pentagon from the office of Vice President Cheney."

Or Maybe Not

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "The top U.S. general and diplomat in Iraq warned on Thursday against cutting short the American troop buildup and suggested they would urge Congress in September to give President Bush's strategy more time.

"Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, in separate Associated Press interviews at their offices in the U.S. Embassy on the banks of the Tigris, were careful not to define a timeframe for continuing the counterinsurgency strategy -- and the higher U.S. troop levels -- that began six months ago.

"Still, Petraeus' comments signaled that he would like to see a substantial U.S. combat force remain on its current course well into 2008 and perhaps beyond."

Saudi Watch

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Bush administration officials are voicing increasing anger at what they say has been Saudi Arabia's counterproductive role in the Iraq war. They say that beyond regarding [Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki] as an Iranian agent, the Saudis have offered financial support to Sunni groups in Iraq. Of an estimated 60 to 80 foreign fighters who enter Iraq each month, American military and intelligence officials say that nearly half are coming from Saudi Arabia and that the Saudis have not done enough to stem the flow.

"One senior administration official says he has seen evidence that Saudi Arabia is providing financial support to opponents of Mr. Maliki. . . .

"Officials in Washington have long resisted blaming Saudi Arabia for the chaos and sectarian strife in Iraq, choosing instead to pin blame on Iran and Syria. Even now, military officials rarely talk publicly about the role of Saudi fighters among the insurgents in Iraq."

Blaming the Saudis, for instance, is clearly not what Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the fresh-from-the-White House military spokesman in Iraq, was sent there to do.

As Cooper writes: "Earlier this month . . . [Bergner] detailed the odyssey of a foreign fighter recently captured in Ramadi.

"In his public account, General Bergner told reporters that the man had arrived in Syria on a chartered bus, was smuggled into Iraq by a Syrian facilitator, and was given instructions to carry out a suicide truck bombing on a bridge in Ramadi. He did not identify the man's nationality, but American officials in Iraq say he was a Saudi."

Pat Tillman Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The Pentagon indicated yesterday that several high-ranking officers will soon be punished for misleading investigators probing the 2004 death of Cpl. Pat Tillman, the Army Ranger who became an icon in the administration's war on terror but who was later found to have been killed by friendly fire. While this could provide a measure of accountability, it should not stop Representative Henry A. Waxman from pursuing his dogged efforts to get to the bottom of this convoluted and troubling case. . . .

"Mr. Waxman, who runs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is asking three basic questions: Who initiated the phony story? How far up the chain of command did the deception go? And what did the White House know? . . .

"There are at least two possible outcomes here. One is that the White House was part of the deception, which would be bad for the White House. Another is that the White House did not learn the truth any sooner than the public or the Tillman family, which would be very bad for the Pentagon. Mr. Waxman should continue his quest, and the White House must be responsive."

The Arizona Republic editorial board says: "Arguments guarding executive privilege are well-grounded. They protect the principle that a president and his confidantes must be afforded the right to discuss issues candidly, especially where national security is involved. But nowhere do those arguments protect an administration's right to further a conspiracy to defend a lie, if that is indeed what occurred. . . .

"The White House would do well to recognize where this train is headed and open its books about who knew what happened to Pat Tillman, when they knew it and what they did about it."

Richard Sisk reports for the New York Daily News: "Pat Tillman's family yesterday ripped the Army's latest investigation of the pro football star's friendly-fire death in Afghanistan as a 'sham' meant to protect higherups."

And is it possible that Tillman's death was not an accident?

Martha Mendoza writes for the Associated Press: "Army medical examiners were suspicious about the close proximity of the three bullet holes in Pat Tillman's forehead and tried without success to get authorities to investigate whether the former NFL player's death amounted to a crime, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. . . .

"The doctors -- whose names were blacked out -- said that the bullet holes were so close together that it appeared the Army Ranger was cut down by an M-16 fired from a mere 10 yards or so away."

Swept Away

In her Los Angeles Times opinion column, Rosa Brooks calls attention to an aspect of Bush's executive order on interrogation policy that, as she puts it, was "barely noted by the media. . . .

"[L]ast week's executive order breaks new ground by outlining the category of people who can be detained secretly and indefinitely by the CIA -- in a way that's broad enough to include a hefty chunk of the global population. Under its terms, a non-U.S. citizen may be secretly detained and interrogated by the CIA -- with no access to counsel and no independent monitoring -- as long as the CIA director believes the person 'to be a member or part of or supporting Al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated organizations; and likely to be in possession of information that could assist in detecting, mitigating or preventing terrorist attacks [or] in locating the senior leadership of Al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces.'

"Got that? The president of the United States just issued a public pronouncement declaring, as a matter of U.S. policy, that a single man has the authority to detain any person anyplace in the world and subject him or her to secret interrogation techniques that aren't torture but that nonetheless can't be revealed, as long as that person is thought to be a 'supporter' of an organization 'associated' in some unspecified way with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, and as long he thinks that person might know something that could 'assist' us.

"But 'supporter' isn't defined, nor is 'associated organization.' That leaves the definition broad enough to permit the secret detention of, say, a man who sympathizes ideologically with the Taliban and might have overheard something useful in a neighborhood cafe, or of a 10-year-old girl whose older brother once trained with Al Qaeda."

Did Bush Blink . . . Again?

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Three years after President Bush urged global rules to stop additional nations from making nuclear fuel, the White House will announce on Friday that it is carving out an exception for India, in a last-ditch effort to seal a civilian nuclear deal between the countries. . . .

"Until the overall deal was approved by Congress last year, the United States was prohibited by federal law from selling civilian nuclear technology to India because it has refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The legislation passed by Congress allows the United States to sell both commercial nuclear technology and fuel to India, but would require a cutoff in nuclear assistance if India again tests a nuclear weapon. India's Parliament balked at the deal, with many politicians there complaining that the requirements infringed on India's sovereignty.

"Under the arrangement that is to be announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush has agreed to go beyond the terms of the deal that Congress approved, promising to help India build a nuclear fuel repository and find alternative sources of nuclear fuel in the event of an American cutoff, skirting some of the provisions of the law."

For background on what Bush gave up last time, in his haste to get the Indian government's approval, see my March 3, 2006, column: Did Bush Blink?

Another Friendly Audience

Bush flew to Philadelphia yesterday for a speech to a friendly gathering of conservative state lawmakers.

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush stepped up his criticism of the Democratic-controlled Congress on Thursday, accusing members of being fiscally irresponsible and 'dragging their feet' on spending bills needed to keep the government running beyond Sept. 30."

Specter Watch

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Guests of President Bush aboard Air Force One generally know that he expects them to behave in a certain way: No showboating or mingling with the on-board press corps and, certainly, no criticizing the commander in chief or his team.

"Senator Arlen Specter violated both points of decorum on Thursday. He visited with reporters aboard the presidential airplane before it lifted off for Philadelphia and lambasted the attorney general. . . .

"According to a pool report of the encounter, Mr. Specter expressed anew his criticism of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales but said he saw no signs that Mr. Gonzales would be forced to resign. Mr. Specter attributed Mr. Gonzales's job security to Mr. Bush's 'personal loyalty' to him."

Ah yes, but what did he say directly to Bush? And what did Bush tell him? Was it just a coincidence that Specter, who has repeatedly backed off from a variety of loud threats to break with the White House, yesterday came out against the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Gonzales for perjury?

Movie Watch

Movie critic Stephen Hunter writes in The Washington Post: "The script of Charles Ferguson's 'No End in Sight' would certainly be in the hands of prosecutors in the event of impeachment hearings. The documentary is a furious, if quietly stated, indictment of the president and all his men in re the debacle that our adventure in Iraq has turned into. Ferguson builds a compelling case of bad judgment, error, stubbornness, arrogance, all of it adding up to a mess with no end in sight....

"In all this Bush is portrayed not as a master manipulator, nor as Karl Rove's sock-puppet, but as a man truly disengaged, even bored by the situation."

TV Watch

On NOW, PBS' weekly TV news program: "Was there a White House plot to illegally suppress votes in 2004? Is there a similar plan for the upcoming elections? This week NOW examines documents and evidence that points to a Republican Party plan designed to keep Democrats from voting, by targeting people based on their race and ethnicity with key battleground states like Ohio and Florida of particular interest."

Cartoon Watch

Walt Handelsman on the Wimpsons.

Overpass Watch

Via Wonkette, the Freeway Blogger puts up more anti-war signs on California freeway overpasses, including this pair: "We're all wearing the blue dress now" and "Impeach."

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