By John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Two senior Justice Department officials said yesterday that they kept Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales apprised of FBI violations of civil liberties and privacy safeguards in recent years.
The two officials spoke in a telephone call arranged by press officials at the Justice Department after The Washington Post disclosed yesterday that the FBI sent reports to Gonzales of legal and procedural violations shortly before he told senators in April 2005: "There has not been one verified case of civil liberties abuse" after 2001.
"I have discussed and informed attorneys general, including this one, about mistakes the FBI has made or problems or violations or compliance incidents, however you want to refer to them," said James A. Baker, a career official who heads the Justice Department's Office of Intelligence Policy and Review.
"I've discussed a number of times oversight concerns and, underlying those oversight concerns, the potential for violations. And I'm sure we've discussed violations that have occurred in the past," said Assistant Attorney General for National Security Kenneth L. Wainstein.
But Wainstein defended the 2005 statement by Gonzales that he was unaware of civil liberties abuses related to the government's counterterrorism effort. Wainstein cited what he described as a dictionary definition of "abuse" in defending Gonzales's remark.
Democratic lawmakers, citing that disclosure, yesterday accused Gonzales of misleading them about the existence of legal or rules violations by the FBI.
Wainstein said Gonzales was saying only that there had been no intentional acts of misconduct, rather than the sorts of mistakes the FBI was self-disclosing. "That is why I cited the definition of 'abuse,' which in Webster's . . . implies some sort of intentional conduct. And I think that is sort of the common understanding of the word 'abuse,' " Wainstein said.
Civil liberties groups and key Democratic lawmakers dismissed that explanation.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) noted that Gonzales said in a written statement last week that he first became aware of problems with the FBI's use of a tool known as a "national security letter" earlier this year. Copies of the FBI reports sent to Gonzales in 2005 and 2006 described several problems with the letters, which allow agents to secretly collect Americans' phone, computer and bank records without a court order or grand jury subpoena.
"This inconsistency is a disturbing addition to a growing list of misleading answers by the attorney general to questions from the Judiciary Committee, and it is unacceptable," Leahy said.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil liberties, said Gonzales should resign and a special prosecutor should be appointed. "Attorney General Gonzales has shown an apparent reckless disregard for the rule of law and a fundamental lack of respect for the oversight responsibilities of Congress," Nadler said.
The White House stood behind Gonzales. President Bush "has said repeatedly that he has great faith in the attorney general, and that has not changed," spokesman Scott Stanzel said.
Justice Department officials said yesterday that they have been unable to determine whether Gonzales actually read any of the FBI reports but that he was informed at various times about the sorts of problems those reports described.
Baker said many of the violations described in the reports involved the inadvertent overcollection of phone data or surveillance that went beyond what agents were authorized to collect. "If you do an overrun or an overcollection, that is a violation of law," he said.
Baker said he could not immediately recall the specific topics and dates of his discussions with Gonzales about FBI missteps but described the conversations this way: " 'Hey, there is an issue that has come up; here it is,' what it has to do with, describe the problem, inform him what corrective action we're taking or what we've worked out with the bureau or what we're telling the bureau to do."
Wainstein said the department's past review of FBI reports of violations were not as thorough as they should have been, and he said Gonzales has now mandated that officials review every report and brief the attorney general twice a year.