Gonzales Continues Senate Testimony

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made another appearance Tuesday in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss his role in the firing of eight federal prosecutors.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. In Washington, it's a modest day weather-wise, temperatures is in the 80s. It probably feels much warmer for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He's been talking with the Senate Judiciary Committee again, testifying. This is not a happy event. Here's a sample moment with the committee chair, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): Is there anybody left in the Department of Justice who could answer the question?

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice): Of course there is.

Sen. LEAHY: Who?

Mr. GONZALES: With respect to these kinds of decisions…

Sen. LEAHY: Who?

Mr. GONZALES: …will be made by the solicitor general. It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people. Now, I would like the opportunity…

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): Mr. Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?

CHADWICK: And that was Senator Specter there, a Republican but also not a friend to the attorney general in this moment.

Here with us is NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, who covers the Justice Department. Dina, the attorney general has been before the committee before. This truly is not his setting.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: No. They've been fairly hostile before and they were equally so today. I mean, the big mystery seems to be how the attorney general has been able to survive this long. Senator Kohl asked the attorney general to explain why the country wouldn't be better served with an attorney general who didn't have all the credibility problems that he clearly has now. And I think we have tape on that question.

Senator HERBERT KOHL (Democrat, Wisconsin): What keeps you in the job, Mr. Attorney General?

Mr. GONZALES: That's a very good question, Senator. I've decided to stay and fix the problem. That's what I - and that's what I have been doing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, this is sort of a new strategy for the attorney general to say that the reason why he's staying in his job is to try and fix the problems within the department. And the truth is people in Washington have been putting bets on how long the attorney general would last for some time. And the reason why he has been able to last is because he's been very true to a constituency of one, and that's President Bush. President Bush has said he has confidence in him and he can stay in office.

CHADWICK: Well, a problem would have been the testimony before this committee a few months ago about how Mr. Gonzales and the then-White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, had gone to the hospital bed of the then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to get him to recertify a domestic surveillance program that needed recertification if it was to continue. And Mr. Gonzales provided his version of the events for the first time about what happened there.

The kind of suggestion was that he had really pressured Mr. Ashcroft when he was not in any condition to kind of defend his views. So what did Mr. Gonzales say?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Gonzales - his version of the events is that he had met with congressional leaders from both parties just before he had made the decision to go and talk to Ashcroft with Andrew Card in - at that hospital in 2004. And he said that congressional leaders had told him that they wanted the domestic surveillance program to be recertified. And that he was not entirely sure that Ashcroft knew that they wanted this or that Comey was going to stand against it. So Gonzales said that he…

CHADWICK: Mr. Comey is the - he was the deputy attorney general then.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Who, at that time, because Mr. Ashcroft was in the hospital for an operation, was acting attorney general, which meant that they needed his approval if they wanted to go ahead with this particular program. And Gonzales essentially said today that he went there to merely apprise Ashcroft in the situation and not to pressure him. And there was a fair bit of skepticism on the part of the committee when he gave that part of the story.

CHADWICK: Any new issues come up today?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, we've been covering the same old ground over and over again now with a lot of these committee hearings. You know, who put the U.S. attorneys who were going to be fired on the list, that sort of thing. But the most interesting new tidbit that we had today came from California Senator Dianne Feinstein. She opened up a manual of the Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses, in which she noted that some interesting things were missing from the latest edition. In…

CHADWICK: You know what, Dina? We're going to have to catch that later. We're out of time for this segment now. Thank you. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston from Washington.

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Gonzales Denies That He Pressured Ashcroft

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiary Committee.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales listens as he is questioned by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, July 24, 2007, in Washington, D.C. Joshua Roberts/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

It has been three months since Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Back then, senators seemed to almost feel sorry for him. Tuesday's appearance was starkly different: Sitting before the committee this time around, Gonzales was attacked from all sides.

Bipartisan Assault

"The attorney general has lost the confidence of the Congress and the American people," said Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). He said the Justice Department was now "shrouded in scandal."

"I don't trust you," Leahy told Gonzales.

The panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter (PA), was no gentler. "Is your department functioning?" he asked the attorney general.

Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-WI) went a step further. "What keeps you in your job, Mr. attorney general?" he asked.

Gonzales seemed unaffected by the onslaught. "I have decided to stay and fix the problem, and that's what I have been doing," he told Kohl.

Many of those problems are of Gonzales' own making. Senators are furious over inconsistencies in his testimony on various issues and his evasive answers to their questions.

Case in point: Months ago, Gonzales said under oath that there had been no serious disagreement in the Justice Department about President Bush's domestic spying program.

It later came out that there had been heated exchanges over the program. In May, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey told the committee that there had been a major disagreement over the program in 2004, when Gonzales was White House counsel.

The Hospital Visit

At the time, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was in the hospital for an operation, and Comey was acting attorney general. Comey was against renewing the surveillance program and told Gonzales as much.

Gonzales, with then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, went to Ashcroft's hospital room and tried to get him to overrule Comey and reauthorize the spying program. Ashcroft refused.

Specter asked Gonzales, given Comey's version of events, how Gonzales could say there had been no disagreement about the program. Gonzales said that the visit to the hospital was not about the terrorist surveillance program but rather, about other intelligence activities.

The sentence had barely left Gonzales' mouth when Specter jumped in, "Mr. attorney general, do you really expect us to believe that?"

Gonzales said that he went to Ashcroft's hospital room to get the surveillance program reauthorized only after top Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate said they supported the program.

"We had had an emergency meeting in the White House situation room, where the congressional leadership told us to continue going forward with this very important intelligence activity," he told the committee.

Gonzales said he had gone to Ashcroft's hospital room to let him know where the leadership stood on the issue. He hadn't gone there to pressure him.

A Looming Showdown Between Congress, White House

Although domestic spying was a major focus of Tuesday's hearing, it was not the only issue.

California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein began her questing by opening a manual. It was the newly revised Justice Department manual on prosecuting voter-fraud cases. The old version of the book had sections barring prosecutions that could affect an election. The new version, as Feinstein read it aloud, eliminates or waters down those provisions. Gonzales said he didn't know about the changes.

Specter also raised the issue of the looming showdown between the White House and Congress over whether top administration officials can be compelled to testify about U.S. attorney firings and other matters.

The Bush administration has claimed that executive privilege protects the officials from having to testify. Congress says that the conversations among executive branch officials aren't privileged. More recently, the White House has suggested that federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., won't enforce contempt charges against the officials if Congress seeks them.

"If that is to happen," Specter said, "the president can run the government as he chooses, answer no questions, say it's executive privilege. You can't go to court, and the president's word stands."

That clearly wouldn't do, Specter said. He suggested that Gonzales ask the solicitor general to appoint a special prosecutor. Gonzales has recused himself from that issue.

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