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Triangulating on the Truth

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 17, 2007; 2:26 PM

In the absence of straight answers from this administration, journalists must resort to triangulation to determine the truth.

Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified in gripping detail Tuesday about the 2004 revolt by top Justice Department officials against President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program. In February 2006, however, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales testified that "there has not been any serious disagreement about the program that the president has confirmed."

If both officials were testifying honestly -- and the Justice Department yesterday stood by Gonzales's testimony -- there's only one way to reconcile their statements: Prior to Comey's protest, there was much more to the program than the president has thus far confirmed.

The program as confirmed involves the warrantless surveillance of communications in and out of the United States. Critics make a persuasive argument that it violated federal surveillance laws and the Constitution. In a significant turnaround, the White House in January suddenly announced that the program would start to operate under court jurisdiction. (See my January 18 column, A Surrender or a Feint?)

Comey's tale of his late-night hospital-room showdown with White House aides (see yesterday's column, High Drama -- and High Crimes?) ended with Bush agreeing to make unspecified changes to the program that Comey and his colleagues felt made it legal.

So what was the program like before that -- when it was illegal even in the opinion of Bush's own Justice Department? What was the government doing for two and a half years -- starting soon after September 11, 2001, through the spring of 2004?

That is -- or at least should be -- the question of the day in Washington.

What Gonzales Said

Here, from the transcript of a Feb. 6, 2006, hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, is how Gonzales answered questions from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) regarding earlier reports of Comey's revolt.

"Schumer: Let me ask you about some specific reports. It has been reported by multiple news outlets that the former No. 2 man in the Justice Department, the premier terrorism prosecutor, Jim Comey, expressed grave reservations about the NSA program and at least once refused to give it his blessing. Is that true?"

Gonzales: Senator, here is a response that I feel that I can give with respect to recent speculation or stories about disagreements. There has not been any serious disagreement, including -- and I think this is accurate -- there has not been any serious disagreement about the program that the president has confirmed. There have been disagreements about other matters regarding operations, which I cannot get into. I will also say --

Schumer: But there was some -- I am sorry to cut you off, but there was some dissent within the administration, and Jim Comey did express at some point -- that is all I asked you -- some reservations.

Gonzales: The point I want to make is that, to my knowledge, none of the reservations dealt with the program that we are talking about today. They dealt with operational capabilities that we are not talking about today."


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