As we've reported before, Alberto Gonzales' careful parsing of the NSA's surveillance program reflected an administration-wide strategy to obscure just what the administration was up to before senior Justice Department officials refused to continue the activities.
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So it shouldn't be a surprise that the director of national intelligence is in on the fun. As we noted yesterday, Michael McConnell sent a letter last afternoon to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) that purported to clarify the issues behind Gonzales' testimony (see below). Gonzales testified, remember, that there had not been disagreement concerning the program that President Bush publicly disclosed in December, 2005. But in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last week, FBI Director Robert Mueller confirmed that the disagreement had been over the NSA surveillance program, a.k.a. the Terrorist Surveillance Program.
McConnell helps muddy the water in his letter (Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) uncharitably calls it "gobbledygook" full of "weasel words"). There was no single surveillance program, McConnell writes, but "various intelligence activities" that had been authorized in a presidential order. And those activities weren't characterized as being in a program until the President was forced to publicly disclose a "particular activity," i.e. "the targeting for interception without a court order of international communications of al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist organizations coming into or going out of the United States." The phrase "Terrorist Surveillance Program," McConnell says, refers only to that specific activity. (Entertainingly enough, he doesn't independently characterize the TSP as a program - just a "particular activity".) Notably, McConnell's letter is the first time that the administration has publicly admitted that "Bush's order included undisclosed activities beyond the warrantless surveillance of e-mails and phone calls that Bush confirmed in December 2005."
Now, none of this weasel wording is new. But it is entertaining to see McConnell bend over backwards to avoid characterizing the bundle of activities authorized by the President in a single order as a program. To admit as much, of course, would be to admit that there was a single NSA program. And that's a slippery slope.
Of course, Bob Mueller and former Deputy Attorney General James Comey don't seem to be in on the fun. To them, there is and was a single program, albeit a program that has undergone major changes.
But wait! There's more! Sen. Specter has said that he still is awaiting a letter from Gonzales which will "interpret" McConnell's letter. It will be, in essence, a parsing of McConnell's parsing. Specter says that he'll only decide whether Gonzales perjured himself after reviewing Gonzales meta-parse. So stay tuned.