The Gonzales Coverup

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

WHY IS IT only now that the disturbing story of the Bush administration's willingness to override the legal advice of its own Justice Department is emerging? The chief reason is that the administration, in the person of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, stonewalled congressional inquiries and did its best to ensure that the shameful episode never came to light.

In February 2006, the Senate Judiciary Committee was inquiring into the warrantless wiretapping program whose existence had been revealed just two months before. Sketchy details had also begun to emerge of the March 2004 hospital room ambush, in which Mr. Gonzales, then the White House counsel, and then-White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. tried to browbeat the gravely ill Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who had temporarily yielded his office to his deputy, into approving the warrantless surveillance program.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who was then chairing the Judiciary Committee, got Mr. Gonzales to agree to have Mr. Ashcroft testify. But when Mr. Specter followed up with a letter asking as well that the department approve the appearance of former deputy attorney general James B. Comey, Mr. Gonzales balked.

If called to testify, Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Comey wouldn't be allowed to reveal "confidential Executive Branch information," William E. Moschella, an assistant attorney general, wrote to Mr. Specter. "In light of their inability to discuss such confidential information . . . we do not believe that Messrs. Ashcroft and Comey would be in a position to provide any new information to the committee."

If you were Mr. Gonzales, you'd certainly want to make sure they stayed quiet. Consider: Mr. Gonzales, as the president's lawyer, went to the hospital room of a man so ill he had temporarily relinquished his authority. There, Mr. Gonzales tried to persuade Mr. Ashcroft to override the views of the attorney general's own legal counsel. When the attorney general refused, Mr. Gonzales apparently took part in a plan to go forward with a program that the Justice Department had refused to certify as legal.

Then, when part of the story became public, Mr. Gonzales resorted to word-parsing. "[W]ith respect to what the president has confirmed, I believe -- I do not believe that these DOJ officials that you're identifying had concerns about this program," he said.

Mr. Gonzales's lack of candor is no longer surprising. What's critical here is that lawmakers get a full picture of what happened, obtaining whatever documents -- Office of Legal Counsel opinions -- and testimony are necessary, behind closed doors if need be. "Jim Comey gave his side of what transpired that day," White House press secretary Tony Snow said yesterday. If there's another side to the story, we'd like to hear it.

What was the administration doing, and what was it willing to continue to do, that its lawyers concluded was without a legal basis? Without an answer to that fundamental question, the coverup will have succeeded.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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