Sunday, July 02, 2006

Did Gonzales lie to Congress?

Jonathan Singer at MyDD and John Aravosis at AmericaBlog are both pointing to the significance of Andrew Harris' story at Bloomberg News regarding the initiation of President Bush's authorization of the NSA domestic surveillance program, which says:
The U.S. National Security Agency asked AT&T Inc. to help it set up a domestic call monitoring site seven months before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, lawyers claimed June 23 in court papers filed in New York federal court.

The allegation is part of a court filing adding AT&T, the nation's largest telephone company, as a defendant in a breach of privacy case filed earlier this month on behalf of Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. customers. The suit alleges that the three carriers, the NSA and President George W. Bush violated the Telecommunications Act of 1934 and the U.S. Constitution, and seeks money damages.

"The Bush Administration asserted this became necessary after 9/11," plaintiff's lawyer Carl Mayer said in a telephone interview. "This undermines that assertion."

The lawsuit is related to an alleged NSA program to record and store data on calls placed by subscribers. More than 30 suits have been filed over claims that the carriers, the three biggest U.S. telephone companies, violated the privacy rights of their customers by cooperating with the NSA in an effort to track alleged terrorists.

The story goes on to detail how the NSA went about setting up the operation:
The NSA initiative, code-named "Pioneer Groundbreaker," asked AT&T unit AT&T Solutions to build exclusively for NSA use a network operations center which duplicated AT&T's Bedminster, New Jersey facility, the court papers claimed. That plan was abandoned in favor of the NSA acquiring the monitoring technology itself, plaintiffs' lawyers Bruce Afran said.

The NSA says on its Web site that in June 2000, the agency was seeking bids for a project to "modernize and improve its information technology infrastructure." The plan, which included the privatization of its "non-mission related" systems support, was said to be part of Project Groundbreaker.

Mayer said the Pioneer project is "a different component" of that initiative.

Mayer and Afran said an unnamed former employee of the AT&T unit provided them with evidence that the NSA approached the carrier with the proposed plan. Afran said he has seen the worker's log book and independently confirmed the source's participation in the project. He declined to identify the employee.

If the information in the lawsuit is correct, this means that the Bush administration authorized the NSA surveillance well in advance of Sept. 11 -- perhaps as early as February 2001, scarcely after Bush had been sworn in. As Singer points out, this severely undercuts its claim that the government could have prevented 9/11 with such a program in place.

Matt O. at The Great Society digs up two prime examples of these claims: one from Dick Cheney ("Cheney said if the administration had the power 'before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up on two of the hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon.'") and then-NSA chief (and now CIA chief) Michael Hayden ("Had this program been in effect prior to 9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such," said Hayden).

But perhaps just as importantly, it also raises questions about the administration's official response to questioning about the program. Because, as I pointed out at the time, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before Congress that in fact the program was initiated after 9/11 and the Sept. 18 authorization of force by Congress:
LEAHY: Let me just ask you a few questions that could easily be answered yes or no.

I'm not asking about operational details, I'm trying to understand when the administration came to the conclusion that the congressional resolution authorizing military force again Al Qaida, where we had hoped that we would actually catch Osama bin Laden, the man who hit us -- but where you came to the conclusion that it authorized warrantless wiretapping of Americans inside the United States.

Did you reach that conclusion before the Senate passed the resolution on September 14th, 2001?

GONZALES: Senator, what I can say is that the program was initiated subsequent to the authorization to use military force.

LEAHY: Well, then, let me...

GONZALES: And our legal analysis was completed prior to the authorization of that program.

LEAHY: So your answer is you did not come to that conclusion before the Senate passed the resolution on September 14th, 2001?

GONZALES: Sir, I certainly had not come to that conclusion. There may be others in the administration who did.

LEAHY: Were you aware of anybody in the administration that came to that conclusion before September 14th, 2001?

GONZALES: Senator, sitting here right now I don't have any knowledge of that.

LEAHY: Were you aware of anybody coming to that conclusion before the president signed the resolution on September 18th, 2001?

GONZALES: No, sir.

The only thing that I can recall is that we had just been attacked and that we had been attacked by an enemy from within our own borders and that...

LEAHY: Mr. Attorney General, I understand. I was here when that attack happened. And I joined with Republicans and Democrats and virtually every member of this Congress to try to give you the tools that you said you needed for us to go after Al Qaida, and especially to go after Osama bin Laden, the man that we all understood masterminded the attacks, the man who's still at large.

LEAHY: Now, back to my question: Did you come to the conclusion that you had to have this warrantless wiretapping of Americans inside the United States to protect us before the president signed the resolution on September 18th, 2001? You were the White House counsel at the time.

GONZALES: What I can say is that we came to a conclusion that the president had the authority to authorize this kind of activity before he actually authorized the activity.

LEAHY: When was that?

GONZALES: It was subsequent to the authorization to use military force.

Of course, as I also pointed out at the time, Gonzales was not sworn in when he testified, so technically this may not constitute perjury.

But it certainly constitutes lying to Congress.

It's not hard to understand why Gonzales would mislead the committee. After all, as I said then:
If indeed Bush took these steps before 9/11, then it should be plain it has little to do with fighting terrorism, and everything to do with expanding presidential powers.

And anyone who points that out, of course, is a traitor to be hunted down.

UPDATE: Gary Farber at Amygdala points out that the Groundbreaker program was a separate matter from the NSA domestic-surveillance program about which Gonzales was testifying. My bad. Be sure to read all of Gary's piece, and check out his links to his previous work on the NSA matter.

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