The Contents of Alberto Gonzales’ Safe Briefcase

Here’s what Alberto Gonzales thought was so sensitive, he illegally kept it in an unsecure safe and brought it back and forth to work in his briefcase.

The classified materials that are the subject of this investigation consist of notes that Gonzales drafted to memorialize a classified briefing of congressional leaders about the NSA surveillance program when Gonzales was the White House Counsel; draft and final Office of Legal Counsel opinions about both the NSA surveillance program and a detainee interrogation program; correspondence from congressional leaders to the Director of Central Intelligence; and other memoranda describing legal and operational aspects of the two classified programs. 


Gonzales told the OIG that President Bush directed him to memorialize the March 10, 2004, meeting. [ed. Note, contrary to one of the press reports, it does not appear that Bush was at the meeting–though Cheney was.] Gonzales stated that he drafted notes about the meeting in a spiral notebook in his White House Counsel’s Office within a few days of the meeting, probably on the weekend immediately following the meeting. Gonzales stated that he wrote the notes in a single sitting except for one line, which he told us he wrote within the next day. Gonzales said that his intent in drafting the notes was to record the reactions of the congressional leaders during the meeting, as opposed to recording any operational details about the program that were discussed. In the notes, Gonzales listed who was present, followed by a general summary of the briefing given to the congressional leaders by intelligence agency officials, and the congressional leaders’ responses to the briefing. However, Gonzales’s summary also referenced TS/SCI operational aspects of the program by his use of specific terms associated with the program. The notes also included the SCI codeword used to identify the program. [my emphasis]


The two envelopes contained a total of 17 separate documents. The envelope containing documents related to the NSA surveillance program bore the handwritten markings, "TOP SECRET – EYES ONLY – ARG" followed by an abbreviation for the SCI codeword for the program. The envelope containing the documents relating to a detainee interrogation program bore classification markings related to that program. Each document inside the envelopes had a cover sheet and header-footer markings indicating the document was TS/SCI. The documents related to the NSA surveillance program discussed in Gonzales’s handwritten notes as well as to a detainee interrogation program. The documents included Office of Legal Counsel opinions that discuss the legal bases for various aspects of the compartmented programs, memoranda summarizing the operational details of the programs, correspondence from congressional Intelligence Committee leaders to Director of Central Intelligence Hayden about one of the TS/SCI programs, a "talking points" memorandum about one of the compartmented programs, and a draft legal declaration of a high-ranking intelligence agency official relating to the NSA surveillance program. [my emphasis]

In general, it seems that this little treasure trove of documents comprised ones that concern programs so sensitive that Gonzales side-stepped all normal document management systems, because he was worried the SCI storage at DOJ would not be secure enough. He chose to keep these documents in a manner that made them more accessible to enemies of the state, because he didn’t trust highly-vetted employees within the DOJ.

And what were the two programs so sensitive he needed to keep documents out of the hands of those who had access to the SCIF down the hall from his office in DOJ? The illegal wiretap program and–almost certainly–the torture program. Alberto Gonzales compromised the security of these programs because he didn’t want any of the highly vetted people with access to an SCIF safe to see evidence of the documentation behind two illegal programs.

The March 10 Document as a Record of Congressional Complicity

Looking more specifically, it appears my original guess was correct–that Gonzales’ notes from the March 10 meeting with the Gang of Eight was designed to record their complicity in the Administration’s illegal wiretapping. We know from the report that when several Democrats disputed Gonzales account of the March 10 briefing, he started sharing the notes with the White House Counsel’s office–so he in fact did use those documents to protect himself, at least (remember, he was risk of perjury charges for his statements about the wiretapping program before Congress).

And I am mighty curious about that one line that he–with his now-legendary memory failures–remembers writing on a separate occasion from the rest of the notes.  Did he go back to implicate another member of Congress? How can Gonzales remember the circumstances surrounding that one sentence and virtually nothing else from his tenure in the Administration?

Are These Documents Among Those Congress Hasn’t Seen Yet?

Then there are the OLC opinions–opinions pertaining to both the warrantless wiretap program and the torture program. Does this batch of documents include some of the opinions–such as the one seemingly abolishing the 4th Amendment–that the Bush Administration hasn’t shown Congress yet? That’s the kind of OLC opinion I could imagine Gonzales hoarding.

Also note that he was keeping draft and final opinions. That’s interesting for two reasons. First, because the torture of Abu Zubaydah started before the August 1 OLC memo was finalized, which opens up the possibility that Gonzales has kept some drafts as if they gave legal cover. But it also raises the possibility that the variances between draft and final opinions reveal the true drafting process.

Finally, note the reference to the "draft legal declaration of a high-ranking intelligence agency official relating to the NSA surveillance program." No mention of which official it was or even which agency, only that it was a draft. Particularly given the Administration’s refusal to actually show NSA the opinions that justified this program, I wonder what’s in that draft declaration.

Congressional Notes to Hayden

And finally, we return to Hayden, with notes from Congress that had to have been written after Hayden became DCI in 2006. But since the IG report doesn’t identify whether the correspondence pertains to the illegal wiretap program or the torture program, and since Hayden was Director of NSA during the period when the warrantless wiretapping program was really lacking in legal justification (according to Comey), it could relate to either program.

But why was Gonzales hoarding this correspondence, and how did he get a hold of it? Was it more CYA, tracking the statements of members of Congress so as to insulate himself and (presumably) Bush?

Perhaps not surprisingly for an IG report that basically lets Gonzales off for breaking the law, the report doesn’t seem all that interested in the content of the documents, aside from noting they include TS/SCI information. After all, you’d think it would go to the issue of intent that Gonzales chose to hoard documents pertaining exclusively to two programs that lawyers within DOJ and CIA had determined to be illegal. But apparently, Gonzales was never asked about that.

  1. plunger says:

    There seems to be a pattern of illegal noncompliance where the document retention policy is concerned. It seems the entire Administration was far more cognizant of ensuring that no written or recorded record of planning remained behind after their departure.

    National Security concerns were continuously eclipsed by their desire to cover their own asses. Evidence of planning would also by definition be evidence of conspiracy.

    It would appear that Cheney set the tone for handling of all documents as evidenced by the giant shredding truck witnessed in front of his residence.

    E-mails and documents just disappear. Shit happens.

    • RevDeb says:

      My first response to reading this was that Gonzo was told to put the docs in his safe by either Darth or Addington. I don’t think that Gonzo has enough gray matter to have thought one way or another about where the docs should be kept. YMMV.

  2. scribe says:

    The other point (Beyond all the blackmail power these documents carry with them) is in the report’s parsing out the classification of the various paragraphs of the notes.

    footnote 14:

    The NSA officials determined that 3 of 21 paragraphs in the notes contain SCI information about the NSA surveillance program, 1 paragraph contains SCI information about signals intelligence, and the remaining paragraphs are unclassified. These NSA officials told the OIG that the three paragraphs about the NSA surveillance program contain SCI information based on references to operational aspects of the program as well as the use of the codeword for the program in conjunction with these operational aspects. The other information included in the notes that was deemed classified by the NSA cannot be described in this unclassified report.

    So, one wonders whether the disavowal of any intent to proesecute therefore obviates any objection (”ongoing investigation!”) to a FOIA request for the 17 unclassified paragraphs.

    And, further: Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson had access to this information?

  3. looseheadprop says:

    Perhaps not surprisingly for an IG report that basically lets Gonzales off for breaking the law, the report doesn’t seem all that interested in the content of the documents

    I think OIG is very interested inthe content of the docs, but cannot mention same in an unclassified report

    Ialso do not agree that the OIG report let AGAG off the hook. T the contrary, it lays out some very easy to prove “open and shut” violations of criminal law–with citations–and sent it over to the National Security Division.

    It is NSD that refused to prosecute. OUG cannot prosecute on its own

  4. FormerFed says:

    Boy this looks like Gonzo’s own personal CYA file. Either that or he is more stupid than even I believe he is.

  5. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Will read fully later, but at the halfway point I had an odd thought — what if Gonzo was just as afraid of the OVP, Addington, Chertoff, Fisher, etc as Comey and some of the other people in DoJ?

    It would certainly be interesting to know whether, or how much, that would have been a motive. I’m not excusing Gonzo; just wondering how fear factored in — IF it was a factor.

    • quake says:

      Will read fully later, but at the halfway point I had an odd thought — what if Gonzo was just as afraid of the OVP, Addington, Chertoff, Fisher, etc as Comey and some of the other people in DoJ?

      It would certainly be interesting to know whether, or how much, that would have been a motive. I’m not excusing Gonzo; just wondering how fear factored in — IF it was a factor.

      Well, his nickname was Fredo, and we all know what happened to Fredo in the movie.

    • LabDancer says:

      My own experiences in govt law offices was first during the Carter administration, then a few years later during the Reagan administration.

      Every one of the contacts between the division I was in under the former & political animals was structured to maintain a proper record on both sides, reflecting an almost stiff feeling of concern at both ends. I have to concede that my new & junior status & the fact I had only a few cases capable of attracting interest outside those directly involved might have had something to do with the impression; but the impression I received from those above me was that the lack of intimate contact was itself a bit of problem in creating communications problems- political apprehensions outside the department, some degree of career anxieties among the bosses, particularly those nurturing hopes of judical appointment.

      From sometime before my second stint I gathered there were efforts to break down that structure, and there was a notable amount of resistance from the department’s career professionals, who to that point still wielded enough influence over the administration of the department that one could tell the political contacts were testing where the resistance was coming from – & in time all of those senior careerists solved the problem by attrition- mostly retirements & deaths, but quite a bit of leaving to practice private or corporate or in house, and a very few internal judicial appointments. But instead of the stiff self-consciousness of political-careerist contacts I saw earlier, now there were incidents of direct insurrection, most on principle but all said to be so.

      By the end of Reagan’s second term, that entire generation of resistance to political inquiry was pretty much gone [as was I]. Those who moved up nearer the top had something like the same principles, acquired from the old guard, but unlike my own experience, they’d also spent most if not all their careers used to political contacts, and I felt their antennae just never was developed to react the same way. Where in my earlier experience careers were made or not on a combination of hard work, merit & sponsorship within the bureaucratic structure, by the end of my second one there was still value in work, & merit had its rewards, but a new dimension of sponsorship had been added by the easing of political ‘dialogue’. Indeed, there were lots of occasions on which it felt like political inquiries over specific matters would turn into mini-quizzes, lightyears from being Goodling’d of course, but in principle not that different, and maybe even more effective in terms of ensuring some competence went all with the felicitous ideology [As to the latter, I think the point has been made before, perhaps by bmaz- except for Civil Rights division, and even then those days are long gone, the DOJ really has never been a great place for finding those inclined political left. It’s quite amazing how one can work alongside authoritarians for years and never have to address it. Again, days long gone.]

      My point is that, for the most part, Wainstein’s career, and certainly its upward arc, has been after that ‘diaglogue’ with all political creatures started to be …relaxed. That same period coincides with Phase III of Boss Dick’s career, mostly spent as a House Rep for Wyoming. Cheney was a frequent friendly face & demonstrated a remarkable degree of support for bread & butter issues with the up & comers in a number of agencies, including the DOJ, and particularly the FBI side of it. Quite apart from his voting record & public speeches, I can’t remember a single mention of him ever asking anyone to do anything untoward or suspect. It all felt like respectful old-fashioned courtship.

      Mind you, I don’t think I ever gave off the vibe of being interested in anything kinkier. Those who did seemed to have done well since.

      Algae was a complete outside to all this. If you want to see how little regard Wainstein had for him, this is from Algae’s farewell tribute:

      MR. WAINSTEIN: Thanks, Craig. And good afternoon, everybody. It is a true honor and a pleasure to be here to help celebrate the tenure of our leader
      and our friend, Judge Gonzales.

      As Craig said, I am in the National Security Division, and I came on board when the division got stood up just about a year ago, last fall. And in this past year, Judge Gonzales and I have worked closely on a variety of different issues, and I have had the chance to see the Judge from a number of different perspectives. I would like to discuss two of those perspectives here today.

      First, I have gotten to see exactly where it is that Judge Gonzales stands on matters involving our national security. And where he stands is right next to the men and women who are on the front lines in our battle against international terrorism. At every step of the way, Attorney General Gonzales has pushed to make sure that our personnel, our officers, our agents, our prosecutors, our analysts, that we all have the resources we need and what we need to protect our country.

      Whether it has been his efforts to stand up the National Security Division you have heard about, the first new division in the Department of Justice in 40 years, I think, or his efforts to make sure that Congress reauthorized the vital tools and authorities that we received back in the Patriot Act, or the countless times that he personally stepped up to help us on matters small or large when he heard about some sort of bureaucratic obstacle that was making it hard for us to do our jobs, the Judge has always been a steady force in support of our national security operations.

      At the same time, he has been a steady force for making sure not only that we conduct our operations effectively, but that we do so responsibly. He understands that our authority to enforce the law and defend the nation depends on the public’s confidence that we would use that authority appropriately and judiciously.

      And that is why earlier this year he directed the National Security Division to establish a new structure and a new component devoted to compliance oversight. And that is why he gave us the authority to conduct comprehensive oversight on all aspects of national security investigations.

      The decision to give us that authority was historic, as it is the first time that Main Justice has been given such a broad oversight mandate. It is a decision that will well-serve the Department, the FBI, and the nation for generations to come.

      Besides having the chance to see Judge Gonzales as a national security leader over this past year, I have also been able to take a measure of the Judge just as a person. And over this past year, people have often asked me, what is the Attorney General like? What is he really like? What kind of guy is he?

      And I have realized over time that I have come to use one particular answer to that question, which is that the Attorney General is a good man. Simply that: He’s a good man. And I think those are the words that Mike Sullivan used a few moments ago.

      And it is kind of difficult to come up with a specific definition of what a good man or a good woman is, but I think we all understand it. It means someone who has a big heart and has all the qualities that you would look for in a friend. And Attorney General Gonzales is a person who has those qualities. He has them in full measure. And in particular, Judge Gonzales has a kind and a compassionate way about him that is evident and has been evident in everything he has done as Attorney General.

      It was evident in the way that he made a habit of making the rounds and dropping in on DOJ employees of every rank and every station just to say hello and to say thank you for your service. It is evident in the way that he has always cared so much for the victims of crime and of terrorism, a concern that was evidenced one particular night when I remember he stayed up well into the night to personally talk to the family of a terrorist’s victim because he wanted to make sure they knew that certain disclosures were going to be made the next day.

      It was evident the time that a number of us traveled to Europe, and Judge Gonzales insisted on changing plans so that he could visit a concentration camp and pay his respects to the victims of the Holocaust. And it was evident the day that I lost a loved one and he was the very first person to give me a note of sympathy, a small gesture but one that my family and I will always appreciate.

      Those are the types of moments in which you truly get the measure of a person, and those are the things that I am thinking of when I tell people that Judge Gonzales is a good man. And they are also some of the reasons why I am proud to speak at his farewell ceremony here today, and to say on behalf of all my colleagues, my friends at the National Security Division, thank you, Judge. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your service. And thank you for your friendship”…..70917.html

      Shorter Wainstein: Okay, we all know he wasn’t exactly the brightest AG we’ve ever had- & yes he’s kind of making us all look like clowns- & even now we’re not sure how he got through law school- but I can assure you: he did pretty much everything we asked him to do [bearing in mind his obvious limitations], he was always available to run errands, never whined or complained, he was mostly quiet, and he had a nice warm smile.

      IMO there’s an element of superiority in Wainstein’s send off that suggests he knows his back is completely covered.

  6. Citizen92 says:

    I’m reading the report to say that, effectively, Ken Wainstein turned Gonzo in.

    Is there anything in Wainstein’s history (or any history that rises to significant dates throughout his many jobs) to suggest he has an axe to grind with Gonzo?

    Various jobs, Office of OUSA for DC

    Director, Executive Office for US Attorneys (Elston’s evential job)

    General Counsel and Chief of Staff to Director Mueller, FBI

    9/2006-3/2008 First Assistant Attorney General, National Security, DOJ

    3/2008-Present Homeland Security Advisor, White House

  7. oldtree says:

    Very strange. He can remember writing on a specific type of notebook and adding something the next day, but he can’t remember the answers to any of the questions the congressional investigators posed about these same matters. It appears his memory is flawed or that he has in fact been caught lying.

  8. plunger says:

    ”For years, law enforcement used so-called roving wire taps to investigate organized crime. You see, what that meant is if you got a wire tap by court order — and, by the way, everything you hear about requires court order, requires there to be permission from a FISA court, for example.”

    – President Bush, April 19, 2004, remarks on USA Patriot Act

    ”(T)here are such things as roving wiretaps. Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires — a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so. It’s important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution.

    – President Bush, April 20, 2004, remarks on USA Patriot Act

    ”First of all, any action that takes place by law enforcement requires a court order. In other words, the government can’t move on wiretaps or roving wiretaps without getting a court order.”

    – President Bush, July 14, 2004, remarks on USA Patriot Act

    • Rayne says:

      You can drive a truck through the loopholes in those comments if you’re the Bush Administration.

      There weren’t any wiretaps, see? Just data mining.

      And we had “roving documentation” in Gonzo’s briefcase, which trumps warrants/court orders for “roving wiretaps.”

      EW — I suspect that it was not for insulation or tracking alone that Gonzo kept both a draft and final. If he has both, he has EVERYTHING. The whole enchilada. There can’t be any rebuttal by anybody else using an early draft against a final to suggest that the original intent was different, or any counter to the draft because nobody else has the final. Whatever is documented in that final and draft is whatever Gonzo (or whomever is using him like a meat puppet) says it is as long as he has the whole enchilada.

  9. bmaz says:

    How many telco and internet company officials and/or counsels did Gonzo meet with while he was long term walkabout with the entire basis of “the program” in his Jethro Bodine Double Naught Super Secret Agent Briefcase?

  10. bmaz says:

    Oh, and where exactly is the polygraph run on Jethro Gonzo to determine his relative deceptiveness on his statements as to where he had been, what he had done, and who could have seen the state secrets in his Jethro Bodine Double Naught Super Secret Agent Briefcase?

    Because last I heard, that was SOP for investigation and debriefing in an unauthorized possession and transportation of classified material case.

  11. Mary says:

    I have to say, my very first reaction to the story and report was that Gonzales was pretty much fibbing about making the notes contemporaneously after the meeting, at the “suggestion” of the President, so that just he and the Prez knew about their existence. Noboddy else. And they never showed up until members of Congress were saying he lied under oath and he seemed to want to profer something to Fielding so the WH would have a nanner nanner backatem.

    And no one seems to mention anything from Bush to confirm Gonzales story of the notes being made at the Prez direction and there seems to be a theme that, despite telling Gonzo to write them up (what, Bush looking down the line for possible future needs???) Bush never actually read the notes.

    So my reaction was, “what if” Gonzales felt like he needed ammo, then went and wrote up what he wanted and took it to Fielding as a big “ta da” Fielding thought it a bit suspicious and, more importantly, thought others would be suspicious, so he starts asking for the provenance on the notes. And there Gonzales starts digging a hole. Bc he can’t say he kept the docs in the DOJ safe, bc others had access to the safe and they might say the notes hadn’t been there. So then where would they have been and even if they were there, should they have been there?

    So then the story of an “innocuous” mistake where Gonzales took the docs home and kept them in the safe there came up, but golly, there’s that problem of documented calls to various and sundry, all trying to get Gonzales’ home safe open and no one could do it. So the hole keeps getting deeper and deeper – maybe he did use the safe at DOJ after all, but then there’s the problem of him not having access to the safe code when he was sworn in, so the docs would have had to be with him – in his briefcase. And then at his house. In the safe he couldn’t open. …


    I guess it’s equally feasible that Bush really did have this flash of insight where he told Gonzales: hey buddy, why don’t you write up your recollections from the Congressional meeting to have them on hand for later reference when the members start calling you a liar for your under oath testimony and Gonzales says: hey Presidentbuddy, good call, I can see why you’re the President and I’m just WHCounsel, let me make those notes that neither you nor anyone else will see for the next few years, bc golly, who knows when you’ll need to refresh your recollection about things or just want to make sure that successor administrations knows exactly what happened in the Gang of 8 briefing.

    In any event, I think the Presidential records nomenclature should get a challenge, with the argument that they are “personal records” as defined by the statutes instead. After all, if the notes were just for Gonzales personal recollection use, even if the President told him to prepare them, then I think it would be interesting to hear how the WH fleshes out that the notes were “prepared or utilized for, or circulated or communicated in the course of, transacting Government business” rather than them being, “diaries, journals, or other personal notes serving as the functional equivalent of a diary or journal which are not prepared or utilized for, or circulated or communicated in the course of, transacting Government business.”

    What would be the government business (or advice to the Executive to end run that too) of making a note that was not for distribution about how Pelosi and Rockefeller and Daschle and Harman et al reacted to being briefed? There are arguments the other way too, but I think it would be interesting if the Presidential Records concept for the unclassified portions of the notes got a challenge.

    I guess the Intel committees have already seen the notes? Or not? Or don’t really want to see them?

  12. MadDog says:

    One of the things I found most interesting about the OIG Report (page 21) was the fact they presented that Fredo turned over all these documents “eventually” to be hidden kept by Steven Bradbury, the non-Senate approved acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel:

    Lastly, the White House attorneys’ notes state that Gonzales gave his original notes to Bradbury after Bradbury told him that the White House Counsel’s Office would be calling Bradbury about them, and because the Office of Legal Counsel already had in its possession many documents related to the NSA surveillance program.

    And the obvious questions are:

    Why hide keep this stuff over at the OLC?

    Why not in the National Security Division (NSD) of the DOJ?

    And why are “many documents related to the NSA surveillance program” being hidden kept at the OLC instead of the NSD (Note for all interested that the NSD is the primary DOJ department for FISA activities)?

    Since the documents required SCIF storage, why not in the Justice Command Center?

    Since most, if not all, of these TS/SCI documents were acquired by Fredo duing his tenure as White House Chief Stooge Counsel, again, why are they being hidden kept over at the DOJ, and in particular, at the OLC?

  13. NMsteve says:

    a little late, but do you remember this exchange between Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and AG Gonzales?

    “WHITEHOUSE: Would that be reflected in any document?

    GONZALES: Yes, it would.

    WHITEHOUSE: We’ll pursue the document later. When you went into the attorney general’s room at the hospital that night, what document did you have in your hand?

    GONZALES: I had in my possession a document to reauthorize the program.

    WHITEHOUSE: Where is it now?

    GONZALES: I’m assuming the document is at the White House. It was a White House document.

    WHITEHOUSE: And it would be covered by presidential records laws?

    GONZALES: It is a White House document.”

    excerpted from http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpoi…..003759.php

    it contains a video link of the exchange too….