The Art of Saying Nothing

Editorial

New York Times

February 8, 2006

We thought President Bush's two recent Supreme Court nominees set new lows when it came to giving vague and meaningless answers to legitimate questions, but Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made them look like models of openness when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday about domestic spying. Mr. Gonzales seems to have forgotten the promise he made to the same panel last year when it voted to promote him from White House counsel to attorney general: that he would serve the public interest and stop acting like a hired gun helping a client figure out how to evade the law.

The hearing got off to a bad start when Senator Arlen Specter, the Republican who leads the committee, refused to have Mr. Gonzales testify under oath. Mr. Gonzales repaid this favor with a daylong display of cynical hair-splitting, obfuscation, disinformation and stonewalling. He would not tell the senators how many wiretaps had been conducted without warrants since 2002, when Mr. Bush authorized the program. He would not even say why he was withholding the information.

On the absurd pretext of safeguarding operational details, Mr. Gonzales would not say whether any purely domestic communications had been swept up in the program by accident and what, if anything, had been done to make sure that did not happen. He actually refused to assure the Senate and the public that the administration had not deliberately tapped Americans' calls and e-mail within the United States, or searched their homes and offices without warrants.

Mr. Gonzales repeated Mr. Bush's claim that the program of intercepting e-mail and telephone calls to and from the United States without the legally required warrants was set up in a way that protects Americans' rights. But he would not say what those safeguards were, how wiretaps were approved or how the program was reviewed. He even refused to say whether it had led to a single arrest.

About the only senators Mr. Gonzales managed to answer directly were the more depressingly doctrinaire Republicans, who asked penetrating questions like whether Al Qaeda is a threat to the United States and whether Mr. Bush is trying hard to protect Americans from terrorists.

Generally, Mr. Gonzales stuck to the same ludicrous arguments the administration has continually offered for sidestepping the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which expressly forbids warrantless spying on people in the United States. He said that the president could make his own rules in time of war and that Congress had authorized warrantless spying in giving the president the authority to invade Afghanistan. Only the panel's most blindly loyal Republicans bought that argument.

To his credit, Mr. Specter pressed the attorney general hard on a legal position that, he said, "just defies logic and plain English." Mr. Specter forcefully pointed out that this isn't just an issue of public relations, but of the bedrock democratic principle of checks and balances. He said it is not possible to judge a program without knowing what it involves and said Congress's intelligence panels should review the domestic spying "lock, stock and barrel."

"Because if they disagree with you," he said, "it's the equilibrium of our constitutional system which is involved."

Mr. Gonzales seemed to brush off this idea, something that should surprise no one since Mr. Bush clearly sees no limit to his powers. But even Bush loyalists on the Senate panel seemed at least faintly troubled. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas said it would be simple to amend the wiretapping law if it's too confining. And Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona suggested that some group maybe even Congress review the spying program regularly.

One hopeful sign of nonpartisan sanity came from the House yesterday. Representative Heather Wilson, the New Mexico Republican who heads the subcommittee that supervises the National Security Agency, told The Times that she had "serious concerns" about the spying and wanted a full investigation. With Karl Rove reported to be threatening Election Day revenge against anyone who breaks ranks on this issue, Ms. Wilson deserves support for a principled stand.