The Limits of 'Linguistic Parsing'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, July 26, 2007; 1:18 PM

It's hard to see through the White House obfuscation about its warrantless wiretapping program, but thanks in part to former deputy attorney general James Comey's congressional testimony in May, we think we know this much:

Soon after 9/11, the administration started eavesdropping on Americans. By March 2004, Bush's own Justice Department had decided that the program was clearly illegal, and top department officials couldn't find a way to rationalize it. After a rebellion led by Comey -- and backed by a hospitalized John Ashcroft -- the White House agreed to make some changes. The revised program, still controversial, was described in the New York Times in December 2005. The White House christened it the "Terrorist Surveillance Program." And in January 2007, Bush agreed to put the revised program under court jurisdiction -- although it's not clear exactly what that means.

The talk sweeping Washington today of a possible perjury investigation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stems from Gonzales's assertion in a February 2006 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that "there has not been any serious disagreement about the program that the president has confirmed."

Even after Comey's testimony, Gonzales insisted that he had testified truthfully.

How could that be? It appears that Gonzales is engaged in what one anonymous Justice Department official this week charitably called " linguistic parsing."

Gonzales is trying to make a distinction between the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" that was "publicly confirmed by the President in December 2005" and what he calls "other intelligence activities" that Comey objected to. But he dug himself deeper during his congressional testimony on Tuesday, when he characterized a March 2004 meeting with some members of Congress that was obviously about the Terrorist Surveillance Program as being about -- you guessed it -- "other intelligence activities." Those members of Congress begged to differ.

This is not just a story about Gonzales's relationship to the truth. It's also a story about all the things we still don't know about the White House and illegal wiretapping.

One of the chief unanswered questions, as I wrote in my May 17 column: What was the program like when it was illegal even in the opinion of Bush's own Justice Department? What was the government doing to its citizens for two and a half years -- starting soon after 9/11 through the spring of 2004?

Perjury Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy threatened yesterday to request a perjury investigation of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, as Democrats said an intelligence official's statement about a classified surveillance program was at odds with Gonzales's sworn testimony.

"The latest dispute involving public remarks by Gonzales concerned the topic of a March 10, 2004, White House briefing for members of Congress. Gonzales, in congressional testimony Tuesday, said the purpose of the briefing was to address what he called 'intelligence activities' that were the subject of a legal dispute inside the administration.

"Gonzales testified that the meeting was not called to discuss a dispute over the National Security Agency's controversial warrantless surveillance program, which he has repeatedly said attracted no serious controversy inside the administration.

"But a letter sent to Congress in May 2006 by then-Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte described the congressional meeting as a 'briefing on the Terrorist Surveillance Program,' the name that President Bush has publicly used to describe the warrantless surveillance program."

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