The Secrecy Excuse

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Friday, July 27, 2007; 1:16 PM

An apparent lie by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales could be easily cleared up, White House spokesman Tony Snow says -- but doing so would require discussing matters that must remain classified in order to protect national security.

The information that Snow and the White House are intent on keeping secret, however, has to do with surveillance activities that President Bush abandoned more than three years ago after Justice Department officials concluded they were illegal. In other words, the government isn't doing this stuff anymore, nor -- one would expect -- will it do so again.

The purpose of classification is to maintain operational secrecy for critical national security programs -- not cover up governmental misdeeds. At least that's the theory. (As I've noted before, Bush aides have repeatedly leaked or declassified secret intelligence findings that served their political agenda -- while asserting the need to keep secret the information that would tend to discredit them.) If the White House believed that disclosing information about a now-defunct program would clear Gonzales, don't you think we'd know it by now?

Gonzales is in this bind because he told Congress in February 2006 that there had "not been any serious disagreement" within the administration about the program the White House dubbed the Terrorist Surveillance Program. And he continued to hew that line even after former deputy attorney general James Comey told senators about a March 2004 rebellion by top Justice Department officials and the White House's dramatic efforts to put it down (including a nighttime visit to then-attorney general John Aschroft's hospital bed).

The only way to reconcile Gonzales's statement with the emerging reality is to argue that there's a distinction between the Terrorist Surveillance Program and what Gonzales calls the "other intelligence activities" that Comey objected to. But if those "other intelligence activities" were just elements of the surveillance program, then the distinction is dishonest.

Furthermore, Gonzales's attempt to make such a distinction has been undermined in the last few days, most notably with FBI Director Robert Mueller's testimony yesterday that it was indeed the Terrorist Surveillance Program that was at issue during the visit to Ashcroft's hospital bed.

But none of this deters the White House, or Snow, from its defense of the attorney general.

Here's video of Snow talking with Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball last night. First, Matthews showed a clip from Mueller's exchange with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) at yesterday's House Judiciary Committee hearing about the Ashcroft hospital visit.

Matthews: "Everyone at home, watch this right now, and everyone can judge this for themselves. They don't have to listen to you or me. Watch everybody now and tell me whether you think that Mueller is saying to Congresswoman Jackson Lee that she's right in assuming that they're talking about the terrorist surveillance program particularly. Let's watch and listen.


"REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D), TEXAS: . . . have an understanding that the discussion was on TSP?

"ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: I had a understanding that the discussion was on an NSA Program, yes.

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