Mr. Gonzales's Inattention

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"INEVER saw documents. We never had a discussion." Those were the words of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in March when trying to distance himself from the Justice Department's controversial decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys. The attorney general was, we now know, mistaken: E-mails and the testimony of former aides prove that he had been involved in that process -- and for nearly two years.

Mr. Gonzales is using a similar defense now in another matter. As The Post's John Solomon reported yesterday, Mr. Gonzales was sent several documents in early 2005 outlining FBI mistakes or abuses concerning national security letters and other intelligence-gathering tools. These notifications are technically known as referrals to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board, which helps police the government's surveillance programs; the notifications are routinely forwarded to the attorney general. Days later, Mr. Gonzales testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which was considering reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, a post-Sept. 11 law that greatly enhanced the president's power to pursue terrorism suspects through such existing tools as national security letters. "There has not been one verified case of civil liberties abuse" under the Patriot Act, Mr. Gonzales testified on April 27, 2005.

How does the Justice Department square Mr. Gonzales's apparent contradiction? Justice officials note that national security letters predate the Patriot Act. They assert that the violations outlined in the 2005 documents sent to Mr. Gonzales had nothing to do with the subject of the Intelligence Committee hearing and that the use of the Patriot Act had been given a clean bill of health in several government audits at the time Mr. Gonzales testified.

We'll come back to this legalistic defense in a moment. But first, fast-forward to the release of a report from Justice's inspector general this year about a significant increase in FBI violations in the use of national security letters. The IG, in part, based his conclusions on the spike in the number of referrals made to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board -- the same kind of documents the attorney general had been receiving in 2005. Yet Mr. Gonzales claimed to be surprised. "I was upset when I learned this, as was [FBI Director Robert F.] Mueller," Mr. Gonzales said on March 9. "To say that I am concerned about what has been revealed in this report would be an enormous understatement."

Why did it take an IG's report and the span of two years before the attorney general became aware of the breadth and depth of violations that he ultimately deemed "a failure" of law enforcement "to do our jobs"? The Patriot Act greatly expanded the authorized use of national security letters, which the FBI can use to obtain information without a judge's warrant. The administration promised to keep a tight watch on the program to guard against abuses of the privacy of innocent citizens. Presented with evidence of such abuse, Mr. Gonzales either read the reports, dismissed them as irrelevant or inconsequential, and failed to share them with lawmakers; or he failed to read them and showed an alarming degree of disengagement in overseeing the use of one of the administration's most potent -- and potentially invasive -- tools against terrorism.

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