What Was He Thinking?

Monday, September 8, 2008

ARECENTLY RELEASED report from the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General raises some fundamental questions: Was Alberto R. Gonzales the least intellectually gifted attorney general in history? Did he possess the worst memory? Was he incapable of telling the truth? All of the above?

Mr. Gonzales has been out of office for nearly one year. But the inspector general's report brings back all too clearly the deep and varied flaws Mr. Gonzales exhibited while serving as the nation's top law enforcement officer.

The report, made public last week, focuses on Mr. Gonzales's handling of notes he took of a March 2004 congressional briefing on a National Security Agency (NSA) warrantless wiretapping program. Mr. Gonzales, then White House counsel, placed his notes -- which included uncontrovertibly sensitive information about the program -- in one envelope, which he then tucked into another. Mr. Gonzales labeled the outer envelope, "AG -- Eyes Only -- Top Secret." Mr. Gonzales carried those notes with him when he began work as attorney general on Feb. 3, 2005. Upon arriving at the Justice Department that day, Mr. Gonzales was briefed on how to handle classified information and told that he could store sensitive information in the department's command center. So what did Mr. Gonzales do with the notes? He took them home. Despite his own labeling of the package as top secret, he told the inspector general he didn't realize the notes contained classified information. Problem is, Mr. Gonzales's house was not equipped with the required secure facility for storing such documents. Although he had a government-issued safe in the house, he did not remember the combination, according to the report. Once Mr. Gonzales brought the notes back to the Justice Department, he failed to secure them in an authorized space. The report concludes that Mr. Gonzales also failed to properly secure at least 17 other highly classified documents pertaining to the NSA program, as well as some regarding a detainee interrogation program.

In short, programs described by Mr. Gonzales as being among the most sensitive in operation could have been compromised by his irresponsibility and lack of judgment. There's a reason government agencies create systems and procedures to protect highly sensitive, national security information. Mr. Gonzales -- a Harvard law grad and former Texas Supreme Court justice -- apparently didn't understand that.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company