DEBORAH AMOS, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Deborah Amos.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
In a few minutes, the NAACP buries the N-word in an attempt to lure a younger membership.
AMOS: But first, the scrutiny intensifies around Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Washington Post reports today that he was less than candid in congressional testimony when he was trying to get the Patriot Act reauthorized. In that 2005 appearance, he testified that the FBI had not abused its new terrorism-fighting powers.
Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Department of Justice): There has not been one verified case of liberties abuse.
AMOS: But the Post says Gonzales had reports to the contrary. Joining us to discuss the implications of this news is Dahlia Lithwick. She is legal analyst for Slate.com and a regular on DAY TO DAY.
Welcome back, Dahlia.
Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Slate): Hi, Deb.
AMOS: How serious are these violations? What are we talking about here?
Ms. LITHWICK: Well, it's hard to know how serious they are. They certainly sound it quite serious. We're talking about things that range from unauthorized surveillance, an illegal property search, a CD that was improperly turned over to the FBI by an Internet firm, and an ongoing problem which we now know a lot more about with the FBI's illegal and improper use of what's known as national security letters. Those are sort of warrantless, judgeless subpoenas. It turns out that the AG may well have been apprised of their abuse a long time before the inspector general report came out.
AMOS: There was a Justice Department spokesman yesterday who said these aren't exactly illegal - these violations - but they're serious. So somewhere in between, or are they actually illegal?
Ms. LITHWICK: Well, his statement was parsed pretty interestingly. What he said was that what Gonzales said at the time was not inconsistent with statements of other officials from the FBI and the Justice Department, which doesn't sound like they were being truthful per se, it just sounds like they all were telling the same story. And he did say - you're right - that these violations were just minor. He dismissed some of them as little procedural errors and some as typographical errors.
But I think that what we learned when there was a big brouhaha over the national security letters is that when people's information is being turned over improperly and the FBI is getting access to all sorts of data that they are not authorized to have, it's an extremely serious matter, much more than a typographical error.
AMOS: So take us back to 2005. What was at stake at that congressional hearing?
Ms. LITHWICK: Well, Gonzales was trying to get the Patriot Act reauthorized. And as you'll recall, the Patriot Act massively broaden all sorts of governmental powers: to have surveillance powers, to have the authority to issue these national security letters, and to do other things. So here we were, 2005, four years later, and Gonzales was sort of trying to make the case to Congress that the government needed to maintain all those powers. And he went out of his way to testify, quote, "There has not been one verified case of civil liberties abuse." So essentially he was saying we need these authority and, by the way, we've behaved properly with it, we've not abused it. And it's now becoming clear that at least on his desk were at least a half a dozen reports to the contrary.
AMOS: There is evidence they were on his desk. Is there evidence that he read them?
Ms. LITHWICK: No, and that's another one of the Justice Department spokesman's, you know, defenses, that it's not clear that he read any of them. It's a very, very strange world indeed where yet again the attorney general is trying to seek as a defense the fact that he wasn't doing the job he's meant to be doing.
AMOS: Do you think that this will increase pressure on the president to fire the attorney general?
Ms. LITHWICK: I don't think so. I think if we've learned anything over the last couple of months over this U.S. attorneys scandal, it's that the more loyal Alberto Gonzales is, the more inclined he is to say Congress doesn't have any oversight authority in the first place over executive branch decisions. And so I think that it's probably fairly clear that what he did, if he in fact fudged the truth a little bit in 2005, was quite consistent with this executive's view of what he should be doing, which is protecting the executive secrets from congressional probing. So it seems to me that if anything, this suggests that Alberto Gonzales was doing exactly what the president wants.
AMOS: We know that the president is already under some pressure this week for claims of executive privilege. So where does that stand in terms of this and in the larger picture?
Ms. LITHWICK: Well, I think that we're probably heading to an enormous constitutional showdown. Usually these sorts of things get resolved through compromise long before they head to the courts. But it does not look at this moment as though either side is inclined to compromise at all. So I think what we may see - and we'll know as soon as tomorrow - we're going to find out if in fact this is headed to the courts for a long, protracted, ugly court battle.
AMOS: Dahlia Lithwick of Slate.com, thank you very much.
Ms. LITHWICK: My pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.