Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales misled Congress by downplaying a dispute between George W. Bush’s White House and the Justice Department over the legality of the National Security Agency’s warrantless spying program, according to previously classified documents.
The documents released Saturday from the inspectors general of the Defense Department, Justice Department, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Office of the Director of National Intelligence concerned their investigations of the surveillance programs initiated by then-President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
They show that intelligence and law-enforcement agencies had mixed views toward Bush’s emergency order authorizing the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone and Internet data. For example, agencies other than the NSA had difficulty accessing information on terrorism suspects because of secrecy surrounding the program, lack of training and the large volume and confusing structure of the data.
The report, which was dated July 10, 2009, concerned programs that ran under Bush’s emergency authorizations from 2001 to 2007. Some programs have continued under different legal statutes.
The stepped-up surveillance has been documented by press accounts and the leak of classified materials in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The Snowden revelations touched off a debate around the world about the scope of the U.S.’s intelligence gathering and whether the surveillance undermined crucial civil-liberties protections, especially Fourth Amendment defenses against unreasonable searches and seizures. Surveillance records of U.S. citizens are included in the data sweeps.
Notably, the report concluded that the Bush administration misled Congress about a major dispute within the government over the legality of the wiretapping program.
The inspectors general wrote that Gonzales offered inaccurate information when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in February 2006 and July 2007 that the program wasn’t the source of a disagreement between the White House and the Justice Department, and that different intelligence operations were the cause of the friction.
Several senior Justice Department officials were on the brink of resignation in March 2004 over a fight with the Bush administration about the legality of the program. This culminated in a dramatic encounter at the hospital bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft that led Gonzales, then White House counsel, to sign the president’s expiring authorization for the spying program, instead of Ashcroft, who was recovering from gall bladder surgery and refused.
“This testimony created the misimpression that the dispute concerned activities entirely unrelated to the terrorist surveillance program, which was not accurate,” the authors wrote.
The inspectors general wrote that Gonzales had a duty to balance his obligation not to release classified information in a public forum with the need to provide accurate information.
“Although we believe that Gonzales did not intend to mislead Congress, we believe his testimony was confusing, inaccurate, and had the effect of misleading those who were not knowledgeable about the program,” the authors wrote.
Gonzales went on to succeed Ashcroft as attorney general, holding the post from February 2005 to September 2007.
The New York Times originally reported on the documents, which were released as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the newspaper.