Report Offers New Details On Bush Spy Program
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
News now of an investigation of government surveillance. Five inspectors general collaborated on an examination of President Bush's domestic spying program, and a declassified summary of their findings is now making its way through Washington. Among other things, it answers the question of whether former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lied to Congress under oath.
NPR's Ari Shapiro has been looking through this document. It's also at npr.org. And Ari is here to talk about it now. Hi.
ARI SHAPIRO: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: So, what did we find out about the domestic spying program?
SHAPIRO: Well, that it was much bigger than we knew or even that we still know. You know, in 2005, the New York Times revealed part of this program, that the government was eavesdropping on Americans without a warrant. Well, apparently, that was just one facet of a much broader program. The other elements remain classified. We still don't know what they are.
We do know that in 2007, Congress passed a law that brought almost everything the president had been doing up to that point under congressional legal approval. And at that point, the president stopped authorizing out of the White House.
SIEGEL: How secret was this program?
SHAPIRO: Oh, it was incredibly secret in the early stages. For example, there was only one attorney in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel who was writing legal memos, addressing whether this was a legal program or not. His name was John Yoo. Well, his boss who ran the Office of Legal Counsel, didn't even know about the program. The Attorney General John Ashcroft asked to have his chief of staff, or the deputy attorney general, informed about the program. The White House said no.
Only the president would personally authorize each person to learn about this program. And according to the report, that was a real problem because, for example, John Yoo, who was writing these legal memos about whether the program was constitutional, well, apparently, he made factual errors. He described things about the program that were just incorrect. And as a result, John Ashcroft, the attorney general, said he was approving the program for the first couple of years based on a misunderstanding of what the program involved. And so, the report says there were serious legal holes in the program that nobody recognized from the beginning of it.
SIEGEL: Now, as you reported before, people threatened to resign over this program.
SIEGEL: Did the inspectors general have anything to say about that?
SHAPIRO: Yeah. In fact, there were some new details about it. Well, you may remember, James Comey was the deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft. And when Ashcroft became very sick and went into the hospital, Comey became acting attorney general and determined, after reading John Yu's legal memos, that this program was not legal after all. And he said he was not going to reauthorize it.
Well, somebody sent the White House's top lawyer, Alberto Gonzales, and the president's chief of staff, Andrew Card, to the hospital where John Ashcroft was sick in bed. They confronted Ashcroft, asked him to override his deputy. And until today, we did not know who orchestrated that confrontation. I'm going to play a cut of tape for you. This is what Comey said in testimony a couple of years ago.
(Soundbite of testimony)
Mr. JAMES B. COMEY Jr. (Former Deputy Attorney General): Mrs. Ashcroft reported that a call had come through, and that as a result of that call, Mr. Card and Mr. Gonzales were on their way to the hospital to see Mr. Ashcroft.
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Do you have any idea who that call was from?
Mr. COMEY Jr.: I have some recollection that the call was from the president himself, but I don't know that for sure. It came from the White House.
SHAPIRO: President Bush said he wasn't going to talk about whether it was him or not. Well, this report says the call did come from President Bush.
SIEGEL: And what does the report conclude about whether Alberto Gonzalez lied to Congress?
SHAPIRO: Well, it says he did not intend to mislead Congress about whether there was a disagreement over this program. But his testimony, quote, "was confusing, inaccurate, and had the effect of misleading those who were not knowledgeable about the program."
SIEGEL: Now, does this report say whether the program produced any useful information in the intelligence?
SHAPIRO: Well, Bush officials have called it one of the most valuable programs in the war on terror. But this report says, it is difficult to attribute the success of particular counterterrorism cases exclusively to this program. It also says the program generally played a limited role in the FBI's counterterrorism efforts.
Apparently, the information from this program was not very timely, detailed, or easy to access, so people went elsewhere. The real question is, what is the Obama administration going to do with the information it still has from this program, when it was operating under the Bush administration?
SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: It's NPR's Ari Shapiro.
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