Did the attorney general perjure himself this week? We think not. From today’s editorial:
The administration’s surveillance of terrorists has, however, undergone several modifications over the period since September 11, and some of the details remain secret. Gonzales’s phrasing was careful, and it was careful because he was trying to avoid disclosing those details.
Here’s a bit from the Senate hearing transcript, to show you what we’re talking about:
SEN. SCHUMER: Let me ask you about some specific reports. It’s been reported by multiple news outlets that the former number two 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?
ATTY GEN. GONZALES: Senator, here’s 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’s 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 —
SEN. SCHUMER: But there was some — I’m sorry to cut you off. But there was some dissent within the administration, and Jim Comey did express at some point — that’s all I asked you — some reservation.
ATTY GEN. GONZALES: The point I want to make is that, to my knowledge, none of the reservations dealt with the program that we’re talking about today. They dealt with operational capabilities that we’re not talking about today.
SEN. SCHUMER: I want to ask you again about — I’m just — we have limited time. ATTY GEN. GONZALES: Yes, sir.
SEN. SCHUMER: It’s also been reported that the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Jack Goldsmith, a respected lawyer and professor at Harvard Law School, expressed reservations about the program. Is that true?
ATTY GEN. GONZALES: Senator, rather than going individual by individual —
SEN. SCHUMER: No, I think we’re — this is —
ATTY GEN. GONZALES: — let me just say that I think differing views that have been the subject of some of these stories does not — did not deal with the program that I’m here testifying about today.
SEN. SCHUMER: But you are telling us that none of these people expressed any reservations about the ultimate program. Is that right?
ATTY GEN. GONZALES: Senator, I want to be very careful here, because, of course, I’m here only testifying about what the president has confirmed. And with respect to what the president has confirmed, I believe — I do not believe that these DOJ officials that you’re identifying had concerns about this program.
More from the editorial:
The Democrats say that to defend Gonzales on these terms is to play games with words. But what was Gonzales supposed to say? The controversy about which he was testifying was the existing surveillance program. He could have said that an earlier version of it had provoked controversy: But given that the administration’s (defensible) position was that publicizing the program’s existence in the first place had jeopardized it, it would have been impossible to say that without inviting further questions that would have revealed more details about the program.
It is a convoluted story; and much of it is beside the point. The country is at war. The commander-in-chief and his agents have to be able to listen in on the enemy. Our surveillance appears to have played an important role in disrupting at least two terrorist plots. But our ability to wage this part of the war has gotten progressively weaker as it has continued. The program narrowed first because of legal objections by the Justice Department, and then because of the political fallout from the New York Times’s reporting. We fear that it will grow weaker still now, because Democrats who ought to know better insist on playing “gotcha” with the attorney general.
Read the whole editorial here.