Friday, July 27, 2007

Gonzo, out of control

They’re going Gonzo again in Washington, and no wonder:

The Bush factotum who still holds the job of attorney general has been exposed yet again as, at worst, a serial deceiver who is incapable of telling the truth even while under oath, or, at best, a willfully oblivious nonentity, the kind of guy who plays the parlor piano in a house of ill repute.

The latest Alberto Gonzales episode is a window into the Bush administration mindset, as if we need any fresh evidence. But it’s still worth a quick look, because it’s not every day that an attorney general provides sworn testimony that is flatly contradicted by his own nominal subordinate, the director of the FBI.

On Tuesday of this week, Gonzales insisted it was no big deal that in 2004, acting as Bush’s White House lawyer, he had shown up at the hospital bedside of his predecessor, attorney general John Ashcroft. The problem is, Gonzales appears to be alone in thinking that this nocturnal foray was no big deal.

The record shows that Ashcroft’s Justice Department had serious legal qualms about Bush’s warrantless electronic eavesdropping program; in fact, the ailing Ashcroft had temporarily ceded authority to his chief deputy, James Comey, who thought the still-secret program was illegal and was thus refusing to reauthorize it. So Gonzales raced to the hospital in the hopes of persuading the heavily sedated Ashcroft to overrule Comey. Comey, learning of Gonzales’ intentions, had himself raced to the hospital in order to head off Gonzales. But Ashcroft refused to budge, siding with Comey.

We know all this, by the way, because Comey, a Republican in good standing, laid out the chronology earlier this year in sworn testimony that sounded like a lurid plot line on the Fox show 24.

Anyway, on Tuesday, Gonzales insisted that the hospital showdown “was not about the terrorist surveillance program,” using the White House’s preferred terminology for the program run by the National Security Agency. Actually, Gonzales was merely underscoring what he has said before; during testimony in February 2006, he had insisted there had been “no serious disagreement” among Bush officials about the warrantless program.

But yesterday, FBI director Robert Mueller was put under oath. He proceeded to back up ex-deputy attorney general Comey’s version of events, including the fact that he, Comey, and others had been prepared to resign unless the White House backed off. (To quell the resignation threat, Bush later agreed to modify the program, in ways we do not know.) Mueller had not been present at the hospital bedside, but he consulted with Ashcroft and Comey in the immediate aftermath of Gonzales’ appearance. He has kept his notes ever since, because, as he now puts it, the incident was “out of the ordinary.”

Mueller’s key remark yesterday came in response to series of questions about the bedside showdown. He was asked to describe what Gonzales wanted to talk about. He replied, a tad haltingly: “The discussion was on a national – an NSA program that has been much discussed, yes.”

But even though Gonzales has now been contradicted by both the director of the FBI and the former deputy attorney general, the White House still doesn’t think its ever-faithful AG has a credibility problem. Bush spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday that Mueller “didn’t contradict the attorney general,” and that the Democrats in Congress are simply out to get Gonzales: “they’re going to smear him up as good as they can” – somehow omitting the fact that virtually no congressional Republicans are lifting a finger to defend the attorney general. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter even went out of his way to trash Gonzales yesterday while traveling with Bush on Air Force One (“Our hearing two days ago was devastating. But so was the hearing before that, and so was the hearing before that”).

And here's an interesting assessment on Tony Snow, offered yesterday on MSNBC: "He's Ron Zeigler during Watergate," a reference to the White House press secretary who shredded his own credibility while serving in Richard Nixon's bunker. That take on Snow comes to us from Bruce Fein, a conservative Republican and attorney who served in Ronald Reagan's Justice Department.

It’s also a bit rich that another White House spokesman attempted yesterday to describe Alberto Gonzales as a victim of “an out of control Congress.” Any administration that launches a secret warrantless wiretapping program, in defiance of rules set down by a 1978 act of Congress, and then finds itself overruled by a conservative attorney general (Ashcroft) who essentially deems the program to be illegal, and then tries to pressure the attorney general while he’s under sedation in a hospital…well, I think that’s a fair description of “out of control.”

But perhaps Gonzales said it best in his latest testimony. When asked whether he thinks it was appropriate to importune Ashcroft, he replied: "There are no rules governing whether or not General Ashcroft can decide 'I'm feeling well enough to make this decision.’”

Question: Even when the guy is under sedation?

Gonzales: “There are no rules.”

There are no rules…That’s the Bush administration, in a nutshell. For once, Alberto Gonzales was telling the truth.


Quote of the week, from a top military aide to David Petraeus, while discussing new attempts to measure whether the Surge is really working:

“We are going to try a dozen different things. Maybe one of them will flatline. One of them will do this much. One of them will do this much more. After a while, we believe there is chance you will head into success. I am not saying that we are absolutely headed for success.”