Today’s lead story in the New York Times brings some clarification–and illumination–to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ claim that the NSA’s domestic surveillance program was not the subject of that now-infamous March 2004 dispute at John Ashcroft’s hospital bedside. (That’s the episode, alluded to in congressional testimony by former top Justice Department official James Comey and confirmed by FBI Director Robert Mueller, in which Gonzales and Andrew Card allegedly showed up in the hospital, in a scene that evoked the subtlety of Paulie Walnuts and Silvio Dante, to take advantage of the ailing AG’s health to try to get him to authorize a program that was being hotly disputed in the upper echelons of the Bush Administration. Ashcroft, despite being under sedation for pancreatitis, refused.)
The NYT reports today that the program in question was not the warrantless wiretapping of international phone calls, but rather, “data mining,” which is a separate endeavor in which the National Security Agency combs through masses of phone calls and other communications looking for patterns that might identify possible terrorists cells. While the former is one whose existence President Bush has acknowledged, the latter is one that he hasn’t, despite the fact that it has been widely reported, including by TIME. Data mining has also been far less controversial than warrantless eavesdropping.
This distinction–one that Senators generally have not made when discussing the two programs–probably means that Gonzales did not commit perjury in last week’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As the NYT notes:
Mr. Gonzales insisted before the Senate this week that the 2004 dispute did not involve the Terrorist Surveillance Program “confirmed” by President Bush, who has acknowledged eavesdropping without warrants but has never acknowledged the data mining.
But Senators nonetheless say the AG’s testimony was deceptive, and the new report is not likely to quiet the calls for further investigation:
“I’ve had the opportunity to review the classified matters at issue here, and I believe that his testimony was misleading at best,” said Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, joining three other Democrats in calling Thursday for a perjury investigation of Mr. Gonzales.
“This has gone on long enough,” Mr. Feingold said. “It is time for a special counsel to investigate whether criminal charges should be brought.”
And it is certain to raise even more questions this week: Specifically, what aspect of the data mining program was so objectionable to the top ranks of the Justice Department that they were considering staging a mass resignation over it? And what, if anything, did the White House do to rectify it?
(P.S. to those very few commenters who noticed my absence: I’m back, having been away for a week, celebrating SwampDad’s 80th and the fact that vacation meant I didn’t have to watch the YouTube debate. I did, however, find the Oscar the Cat story fascinating.)
UPDATE: Commenters, including P_Luk and Elvis Elvisberg, caution against taking the NYT story on its face. They apparently read it–correctly, I’m sure–as an Administration leak to get Gonzales off the hook on perjury accusations. However, that is a risky strategy if the report is not accurate, given that it can be challenged by the other people who were in the room. And further, it raises new questions, and potential new political problems, about the data mining program. Specifically, WHY were Justice Department officials objecting to it?