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'Torture Boy' Signals More Spying

By Robert Parry
March 2, 2006

Correcting misleading testimony to Congress, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has signaled that George W. Bush’s warrantless surveillance of Americans went beyond the known eavesdropping on communications to suspected terrorists overseas.

In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 28, Gonzales recanted testimony he gave on Feb. 6 when he declared that Bush had only authorized a narrowly constructed warrantless wiretapping program by the National Security Agency against Americans in touch with foreign terror suspects.

Referring to a part of his testimony in which he said Bush had approved the NSA program “and that is all that he has authorized,” Gonzales withdrew that language, saying “I did not and could not address … any other classified intelligence activities.” [Washington Post, March 1, 2006]

The strained wording of Gonzales’s letter – and the fact that he deemed it necessary to correct his testimony – suggest that other warrantless surveillance programs exist outside the framework of the NSA program, which began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and was exposed by the New York Times in December 2005.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee’s Republican chairman, didn’t put Gonzales under oath at the Feb. 6 hearing, but false statements to Congress still constitute a potential criminal offense.

Close Questioning

The dubious testimony came during close questioning by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee’s ranking Democrat. Leahy pressed Gonzales on the administration’s claim that Congress gave Bush the power to wiretap without a court warrant when it authorized use of force against al-Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In his testimony, Gonzales argued that the congressional use-of-force authorization, combined with the President’s Commander-in-Chief power in the Constitution, permitted Bush to approve a wiretapping program for communications between Americans and terror suspects operating outside the United States.

But – in challenging Bush’s right to ignore the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires a special court to approve wiretaps – Leahy demanded to know if the administration’s legal interpretation also let Bush conduct other warrantless spying on Americans, including tapping purely domestic phone calls, mail openings and “black bag” break-ins into people’s homes and offices.

“Under that (administration) logic, is there anything that stops you from wiretapping without a warrant somebody inside the United States that you suspect of having al-Qaeda connections?” Leahy asked.

“Clearly, Senator, that is not what’s going on here,” Gonzales responded. “The President had authorized a much more narrow program. We are always, of course, subject to the Fourth Amendment. So the activities of any kind of surveillance within the United States would, of course, be subject to the Fourth Amendment,” which requires “probable cause” and a court warrant before the property of Americans can be searched.

Leahy persisted. “Under your interpretation of this, can you go in and do mail searches? Can you go into e-mails? Can you open mail? Can you do black-bag jobs? … Can you go and do that (to) Americans?”

Gonzales responded, “Sir, I've tried to outline for you and the committee what the President has authorized, and that is all that he has authorized.”

“Did it authorize the opening of first-class mail of U.S. citizens?” Leahy continued. “That you can answer, yes or no.”

Gonzales: “There is all kinds of wild speculation about...”

Leahy: “Did it authorize it?”

Gonzales: “There is all kinds of wild speculation out there about what the President has authorized and what we’re actually doing. And I’m not going to get into a discussion, Senator.”

Recanted Testimony

Three weeks later, by recanting the statement about “that is all that he (Bush) has authorized” in the context of Leahy’s line of questioning, Gonzales appears to be acknowledging that some of Leahy’s concerns are valid, that there are other components to Bush’s warrantless surveillance operations beyond the NSA program.

Given the fact that the Bush administration and its media allies have openly challenged the loyalty of Americans who have disagreed with Bush’s policies, it would not be a big jump to suspect that Bush has authorized spying on citizens, journalists and/or politicians who have, in his view, undermined his strategy in the War on Terror or the Iraq War.

Some Republicans publicly have urged Bush to counter these Americans whom they call “Fifth Columnists” for supposedly sympathizing with or otherwise helping the enemy.

At the Feb. 6 hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., declared that “I stand by this President’s ability, inherent to being Commander in Chief, to find out about Fifth Column movements, and I don’t think you need a warrant to do that.”

When Graham offered to work with the administration to draft guidelines for how best to neutralize this alleged threat, Gonzales smilingly replied, “Senator, the President already said we’d be happy to listen to your ideas.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Mysterious ‘New Programs’.”]

With Bush’s elastic use of language and his aggressive interpretation of his own powers, there would seem to be little that Bush feels he cannot do.

Gonzales, who was Bush’s White House counsel before becoming Attorney General, is part of a cadre of far-right lawyers who have asserted virtually unlimited powers for Bush during the indefinite War on Terror.

Gonzales earned the nickname “Torture Boy” for going along with ideologues like John Yoo and David Addington in defending interpretations of Bush’s authority that opened the door to torture and other abuses of U.S. detainees imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan and secret CIA jails scattered around the world. [See Consortiumnews.com's “U.S. Disconnect on Bush's Abuses.”]

Legal Resistance

The right-wing lawyers encountered opposition from professional attorneys at the Justice Department and the Defense Department. The professionals – the likes of Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith and U.S. Navy general counsel Alberto Mora – forced the Bush lawyers into some retreats on the most expansive assertions of executive power, especially involving torture.

Referring to one of Yoo’s opinions that asserted the President’s power to subject Guantanamo inmates to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, Navy general counsel Mora wrote, “The memo espoused an extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the President’s Commander-in-Chief authority.” [See Mora’s 22-page chronology, as posted by The New Yorker.]

But, one by one, these internal critics were pushed out of the government. Goldsmith resigned to take a teaching position at Harvard Law School; Mora quit to take a job as general counsel for Wal-Mart’s international operations. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Another Bush Lie” on Goldsmith, or The New Yorker’s “The Memo” on Mora.]

In the context of Bush’s top legal advisers rationalizing Bush’s right to torture prisoners or to jail American citizens without charges, the likelihood seems high they also would claim for Bush the power to spy on domestic opponents.

As Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 6, “detention is far more intrusive than electronic surveillance.”

But it’s unclear whether the American people will ever learn what these additional eavesdropping programs were or whom they targeted. The Bush administration has wrapped its domestic spying program in layer after layer of secrecy and lies.

In a speech in Buffalo, N.Y., on April 20, 2004, Bush went out of his way to mislead the American people into a false sense of security about his respect for Fourth Amendment prohibitions on warrantless wiretaps.

“By the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires – a wiretap requires a court order,” Bush said. “Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.”

At the time of his speech, Bush had been authorizing wiretaps without getting approval from the FISA court for more than two years. [For more on Bush’s deceptions, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Talkin’ ‘Texan’ Means Lying Big

Secrecy Charade

The administration’s claim about the need for extraordinary secrecy surrounding the wiretap program is also largely a charade. Al-Qaeda and other enemy groups have long been aware that the United States has the capability of electronic eavesdropping and have structured their operations accordingly.

In the Feb. 6 hearing, Gonzales acknowledged as much under questioning from Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware.

Biden asked, “How has this revelation damaged the program” since the administration’s attack on the disclosure “seems to presuppose that these very sophisticated al-Qaeda folks didn’t think we were intercepting their phone calls?”

Gonzales responded, “I think, based on my experience, it is true – you would assume that the enemy is presuming that we are engaged in some kind of surveillance. But if they’re not reminded about it all the time in the newspapers and in stories, they sometimes forget” – a response that drew laughter from the citizens in the hearing room.

“You’re amazed at some of the communications that exist,” Gonzales continued. “So when you keep sticking it in their face that we’re involved in some kind of surveillance, even if it’s unclear in these stories, it can’t help but make a difference, I think.”

In other words, Gonzales argued that the reason for the extraordinary secrecy around the wiretap program is not that the disclosure of its existence would alert al-Qaeda to a previously unknown U.S. spying capability, but that newspaper stories might remind them to be a little more cautious while chatting on the telephone.

Such a slim argument would suggest that the Bush administration has another motive for trying to intimidate anyone – whether in the press or in Congress – who wants to investigate the surveillance program.

On Feb. 28, reflecting on Gonzales’s earlier testimony, Leahy said the Attorney General’s unresponsive answers led to the conclusion that Gonzales “has a radically different understanding of the laws than do many of us – the people’s representatives in Congress who wrote the laws.”

As for Gonzales’s responses to senators’ questions about the program, Leahy said, “whatever we asked, it was either too relevant or not relevant enough, and either way, we were getting no answers from the Attorney General.”

A logical suspicion is that the administration is blocking a thorough examination of the wiretapping program because it might show that Bush followed the legal advice on his unlimited powers into pervasive spying of his political enemies.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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