Yesterday, Alberto Gonzales testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he and Andrew Card visited John Ashcroft at the hospital following a meeting with key congressional leaders during which the consensus was that a certain terrorist surveillance program should continue. Ashcroft had given up his duties as Attorney General due to illness, and his temporary replacement had said the program was unlawful even though the Justice Department had authorized it for two years. Gonzales said he wanted to raise with Ashcroft the concern expressed during the meeting about ending the surveillance program. Gonzales did not testify that any member of Congress suggested that he visit Ashcroft at the hospital. In fact, he denied that any member proposed this. You can read his testimony here (via the invaluable Congressional Quarterly).
The congressional group that attended the meeting in question (and others held periodically on these matters) was called the Gang of Eight. The Gang consisted of the two top leaders from both parties of the House and Senate, and the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Tom Daschle, Nancy Pelosi, and Jay Rockefeller were part of the Gang.
Today’s Washington Post, in a report by Dan Eggen and Paul Kane, claims that these three Democrats “sharply disputed” Gonzales’s testimony on this matter. However, the Post’s report does not support this characterization. Indeed, what the Post learned actually tends to support Gonzales’s testimony.
Daschle says he could not recall the meeting in question, but was “quite certain that at no time did we encourage the AG or anyone else to take such actions.” But, as noted, Gonzales did not say that anyone encouraged him to visit Ashcroft. Significantly, Daschle does not deny that members of the Gang told Gonzales the surveillance in question should continue. The hospital visit was intended to apprise Ashcroft that congressional leaders thought so.
Rockefeller repeats his long-time mantra that lawmakers were never asked to give their approval of the program, and that the meetings were short and involved no questions. But he does not deny that Gang members sometimes expressed their views, or that on this occasion the views they expressed were as Gonzales described them.
Rockefeller and Pelosi apparently deny that there was any consensus at this meeting. The term “consensus” carries with it some subjectivity. However, near the end of the Post’s piece we learn that three members of the Gang confirm that “the congressional group raised no objections and agreed that the program should go forward.” That sounds like a consensus. If Pelosi and Rockefeller didn’t agree, they should have objected. Keeping in mind the national security implications, the administration’s success in preventing another 9/11, and the fact that the meeting pre-dated the leaks about surveillance, can anyone imagine Pelosi or Rockefeller objecting? Perhaps the Senate Judiciary Committee should place them under oath and ask them whether they did.
The three Gang members who admit that the group wanted the surveillance program to proceed say the “legal underpinnings” of the program were never discussed (Eggen and Kane elect to make this point in the second paragraph, while disclosing the portions of what these three said that supports Gonzales’s account only at the end of the story). But Gonzales never testified that the legal underpinnings were discussed. Nor is there any indication that Gang members expressed any interest in the law. Had they done so, there’s no reason to think the administration would have declined to discuss it with them.
It should be easy enough to determine whether this meeting occurred, though the statements of at least the three Gang members (and even Pelosi) leave little doubt that it did. If the meeting did occur, then it’s quite likely that the Gang, knowing that the program had been in place and approved by DOJ for two years, would have wanted it to continue, and at least three Gang members and Gonzales say this was the case. At a minimum, the Gang almost surely would not have wanted the program to be halted without more discussion with the Justice Department. Like the discussion that Gonzales had with Ashcroft.
If Daschle, Rockefeller, and Pelosi had disputed Gonzales’s account, their credibility would be in serious doubt. But they didn’t; the Washington Post just wants to make it seem like they did.
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