Bob Egelko / SF Chronicle | April 15, 2008

Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s assertion that an unmonitored terrorist phone call before the Sept. 11 attacks showed the need for more government wiretapping authority drew a scathing retort Monday from Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, who accused him of rewriting history and ducking questions.

In a March 27 appearance before the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Mukasey said the 2001 terrorist attacks could have been prevented if the government had been able to determine the destination of a call from a known safe house in Afghanistan to the United States.

In a written response to questions from Judiciary Committee leaders, who said such a phone call had never come up in post-Sept. 11 investigations, Mukasey said Thursday that the call hadn’t come from Afghanistan, but from another nation he declined to name. But he said the incident still showed that Congress was interfering with efforts to monitor terrorist communications, with catastrophic results.

On Monday, committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., and two Democratic colleagues issued a statement saying they wanted "answers, not public relations spin."

In an accompanying letter to Mukasey, they said the phone call he now appears to be describing was reviewed in 2003 by congressional intelligence committees, which found that the National Security Agency had intercepted the message but failed to relay it to other intelligence agencies.

"The failure to utilize the information in this call had nothing to do with limitations in (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), contrary to what your March 27 speech appeared to suggest," the House members said. "Instead, the problem was NSA’s narrow interpretation of its authority," a policy that the agency later changed on its own.

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