Today Tony Snow told the White House press corps that what Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee was correct: there was no disagreement in the Justice Department about the “terrorist surveillance program” which President Bush described to the American people in 2005. There was controversy, but that was over a different set of intelligence activities:
The terrorist surveillance program, as it has been labeled — it was not so labeled at the time — was a program of doing surveillance on communications of al Qaeda or suspected al Qaeda members internationally — internationally into the United States. The legal basis of that was accepted by the Department of Justice, and it was not a matter of controversy. To the extent that there were controversies on — there are many different things that involve the gathering or use of intelligence; some of those may, in fact, themselves have been subjects of controversy, there were controversies about those. It is also the case that whatever controversy had been raised by the then acting Attorney General had been resolved. And that is something that he has said publicly.
That seems pretty simple, but what is striking about the transcript of the press gaggle is the dim-wittedness of the reporters. It is hard to understand how well-paid professionals (I assume) can fail to follow such a simple point. One reporter went so far as to say that Snow was “contradicting himself” by drawing a distinction between the “terrorist surveillance program” and other intelligence activities. It’s an interesting window into the thinking, or lack thereof, of the White House press corps.
In fairness to the journalists, however, they didn’t go as wild as the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee when they interrogated Gonzales earlier this week. The transcript is here; it’s hard sometimes to tell the Democratic Senators from the protesters. If the Senators went any wilder, they’d be raising their shirts in exchange for beads.
Worst of all was Chuck Schumer, who made a show of pretending to misunderstand the basic facts that Gonzales told him. Given the anti-Gonzales tone of the press coverage, it is interesting to read what the Attorney General actually had to say. Here, he describes the hospital interview with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, and what led up to it:
The consensus in the room from the congressional leadership is that we should continue the activities, at least for now, despite the objections of Mr. Comey.
There was also consensus that it would be very, very difficult to obtain legislation without compromising this program, but that we should look for a way ahead.
It is for this reason that within a matter of hours Andy Card and I went to the hospital. We felt it important that the attorney general knew about the views and the recommendations of the congressional leadership, that as a former member of Congress and as someone who had authorized these activities for over two years that it might be important for him to hear this information.
That was the reason that Mr. Card and I went to the hospital.
Obviously, we were concerned about the condition of General Ashcroft. We obviously knew he had been ill and had surgery. And we never had any intent to ask anything of him if we did not feel that he was competent.
When we got there, I will just say that Mr. Ashcroft did most of the talking. We were there maybe five minutes — five to six minutes.
Mr. Ashcroft talked about the legal issues in a lucid form, as I’ve heard him talk about legal issues in the White House. But at the end of his description of the legal issues, he said, “I’m not making this decision. The deputy attorney general is.”
And so Andy Card and I thanked him. We told him that we would continue working with the deputy attorney general and we left.
And so I just wanted to put in context for this committee and the American people why Mr. Card and I went. It’s because we had an emergency meeting in the White House Situation Room, where the congressional leadership had told us, “Continue going forward with this very important intelligence activity.”
Gonzales could see that some of the Senators were confused, and he offered to explain to them where the controversy resided, and why it was different from the “terrorist surveillance program” that President Bush had publicly disclosed. Of course, this would have to be done in closed session, since it involved disclosure of classified information:
SPECTER: Going back to the question about your credibility on whether there was dissent within the administration as to the terrorist surveillance program, was there any distinction between the terrorist surveillance program in existence on March 10th, when you and the chief of staff went to see Attorney General Ashcroft, contrasted with the terrorist surveillance program which President Bush made public in December of 2005?
GONZALES: Senator, this is a question that I should answer in a classified setting, quite frankly, because now you’re asking me to hint or talk — to hint about our operational activities. And I’d be happy to answer that question, but in a classified setting.
The Senators declined Gonzales’s invitation. That tells you everything you need to know: they are not interested in learning the truth, but only in seeking political advantage. Finally, we have this colloquy between Schumer and Pat Leahy, who are sputtering over Gonzales’s testimony that the controversial program was something other than the TSP:
SCHUMER: But, Mr. Chairman, if I might, now what the attorney general is saying the way this is clarified is that Jim Comey was not talking about the program the president…
LEAHY: I’m going to ask for a review of the transcript, both of what Mr. Comey said…
SCHUMER: Everyone knows that’s not true.
LEAHY: … and what Mr. Gonzales said. There’s a discrepancy here in sworn testimony. We’re going to have to ask who’s telling the truth, who’s not.
Actually, Schumer and Leahy were wrong. There is no discrepancy between what Gonzales said and what Comey testified to. As we noted here, Comey refused to identify the program that was controversial at the time of the hospital visit. Maybe a special prosecutor should be appointed to investigate Schumer and Leahy.
PAUL adds: Arlen Specter set a bad tone at the hearing. When Gonzales first testified that the hospital visit to Ashcroft pertained to other intelligence activities than the terrorist surveillance program the president announced to the American people, Specter asked “do you expect us to believe that?” The Dems and the MSM have been using Specter’s reaction as cover for accusing Gonzales of lying about this. However, at a press conference in which he questioned Democratic calls for a special prosecutor in this matter, Specter, having had time to think things over, noted that a basis exists for believing that the Gonzales visit did in fact pertain to a different program.
Specter is a cranky old litigator (I’m beginning to know the feeling). He still has plenty of aggression (apparently that’s the last thing to go), but his discernment seems to be waning. Yet unlike Schumer, Leahy, and company, Specter was honest enough to weigh the evidence after he cooled down, and to realize he had been too quick to attack on Gonzales on this point.
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