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.
McConnell's letter comes a week after Gonzales insisted to the committee that the hospital confrontation was about some other program he would not name because it was classified. Gonzales repeatedly denied that the internal disagreement was about the "program the president has confirmed."
As McConnell noted, Mr. Bush did not disclose the existence of the program until after The New York Times revealed it in December 2005.
Earlier this week, Congress and President Bush's aides worked to expand the government's surveillance authority without jeopardizing citizens' rights, aides to lawmakers and White House officials said.
The White House relented on several fronts in its drive to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act this week.
The White House has told Congress it will accept a narrow version of the bill, but will push later for broader changes, including immunity for telecommunications companies cooperating in the wiretapping program, The New York Times reported.
An impediment to getting a deal approved revolves around a disagreement between Democrats and the White House over how to monitor the wiretapping of international calls between foreigners that are routed through switches in the United States.
The Democrats propose the eavesdropping be reviewed by the FISA court to ensure no Americans are involved, the Times reported.
Meanwhile, senators critical of Gonzales jumped on McConnell's letter as meaningless.
"This letter corroborates the fact that there was only one program that the president confirmed," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
After reading the letter, Specter neither accepted McConnell's explanation nor absolved Gonzales of questions about his credibility. Specter said he was waiting for a separate letter from the attorney general.
"If he doesn't have a plausible explanation, then he hasn't leveled with the committee," Specter said on CNN.
Gonzales' testimony last week led four Democrats to call for a special counsel to investigate whether he lied in his sworn testimony. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., gave Gonzales until the end of this week to make changes to his testimony to clear up discrepancies.
The developments stem from a seven-month congressional investigation into the firings of federal prosecutors over the winter. That probe, and Gonzales' own statements, have produced widespread calls from lawmakers of both parties for him to step down.
Democrats say that the firings were evidence of improper political influence over prosecutions.
In a related development, one of those fired, New Mexico's David Iglesias, was to testify before the House ethics committee Wednesday about whether Rep. Heather Wilson broke the rules in October when she asked him about ongoing investigations.
Wilson said she hasn't been notified that the committee has taken any action. She has not hired a lawyer, nor been asked to produce any information for the committee, her spokesman Joel Hannahs said.