Intel Chief Hints At Bigger Spy Program

Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 1, 2007, before the Senate Intelligence Committee. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari
President Bush's spy chief sought to defend Attorney General Alberto Gonzales against charges of lying to Congress in a technically worded statement Tuesday hinging on when the government's terror surveillance program got its name. He hinted — as Gonzales has — that there's more to the program than has been made public.

Senate Judiciary Committee members have questioned whether Gonzales told the truth when he testified last week that a 2004 confrontation between administration officials was not about the president's secret eavesdropping program, dubbed the terrorist surveillance program.

Gonzales' testimony indicated there was more to the administration's intelligence-gathering than has been divulged.

In a carefully worded letter than never mentions Gonzales, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell noted that the administration first acknowledged its controversial surveillance activities and used the phrase "terrorist surveillance program" in early 2006. At the time, Mr. Bush said he had ordered the National Security Agency to intercept communications of terror suspects even when one person is inside the United States. Breaking with long-held precedents, no court approval was necessary.

In his letter to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., McConnell makes clear Mr. Bush has publicly talked about only one slice of the program.

"This is the only aspect of the NSA activities that can be discussed publicly because it is the only aspect of those various activities whose existence has been officially acknowledged," he wrote.

Another reason McConnell presents for the attorney general's claim: The program wasn't named TSP by the administration until 2006, long after Gonzales' now-famous effort as White House counsel to get then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign off on what Gonzales calls other, undisclosed intelligence activity.

His FBI director, Robert S. Mueller, did not make that distinction last week before the House Judiciary Committee. Asked if the TSP was the program at issue during the hospital confrontation, Mueller answered, "Yes."

"I understand that the phrase 'Terrorist Surveillance Program' was not used prior to 2006 to refer to the activities authorized by the president," McConnell wrote to Specter.

Intelligence officials are loathe to get involved in politics, and McConnell attempted to lay out only some bare facts about the program. Yet his letter was designed to leave the clear impression that, technically, there were no discrepancies on the matter of the hospital visit.

Installed as spy chief just five months ago, McConnell also pins his own reasoning on the Justice Department.

"The details of the activities changed in certain respects over time and I understand from the Department of Justice these activities rested on different legal bases," McConnell wrote in his one-page letter.