Attorney General Gonzales' Credibility Attacked

Congressional leaders from both political parties came very close to accusing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales of perjury. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, they questioned Gonzales' previous testimony on the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Congressional leaders from both political parties came very close yesterday to accusing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales of perjury. At a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing, they asked crushing questions about the attorney general's previous testimony on the administration's warrantless surveillance program.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The hearing was another Gonzales fiasco with Republicans and Democrats alike pummeling the embattled attorney general. Your credibility and your judgment, said ranking Republican Arlen Specter, have been decimated. Your testimony, said Chairman Patrick Leahy, is like "Alice in Wonderland."

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): You come here seeking our trust. Frankly, Mr. Attorney General, you've lost mine.

TOTENBERG: Said Senator Dianne Feinstein, I have never heard comments quite like this coming from both sides of the aisle. While the senators tore Gonzales limb from limb on all manner of subjects, the most perilous for him personally was his previous testimony on the so-called terrorist surveillance program.

In February of 2006, Gonzales assured the Judiciary Committee that there had been no disagreement within the Justice Department about the legality of the secret program providing surveillance without warrants.

But earlier this year former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified that the entire upper echelon of the department had at one point been prepared to quit over the program and that in 2004 then-White House Counselor Gonzales made an end-run around Comey by going to the bedside of a critically ill Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft, who've turned over temporary control of the department to Comey, refused to overrule his deputy. Yesterday, Gonzales insisted his previous testimony had been accurate and that the Justice Department objections had been to something else.

Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Department of Justice): The disagreement that occurred and the reason for the visit to the hospital, Senator, was about other intelligence activities. It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people.

TOTENBERG: If that is the case, asked Senator Chuck Schumer, why did Gonzales just last month refer to Comey's testimony as being about the warrantless surveillance program?

Attorney General GONZALES: In the press conference I did misspeak, but I also went back and clarified with a reporter...

Senator CHUCK SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): What did you say to the reporter?

Attorney General GONZALES: I did not speak directly to the reporter.

Sen. SCHUMER: What did your spokesperson say to the reporter?

Attorney General GONZALES: I don't know, but...

Sen. SCHUMER: Wait a minute, sir.

TOTENBERG: Gonzales also said at the hearing that his visit to Ashcroft's bedside had come on a day when he and others had briefed congressional leaders, the so-called Gang of Eight, about the program and that those leaders agreed the program should be reauthorized.

But some congressional leaders flatly contradicted that account, among them Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, one of the Gang of Eight.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): There was no such conversation. None.

Unidentified Woman: No such conversation or briefing?

Sen. ROCKEFELLER: Briefing, statements, nothing. It was not set. He once again is making up something to protect himself and to protect and to create a situation which never happened.

TOTENBERG: So was Gonzales deliberately lying yesterday?

Sen. ROCKEFELLER: Based upon what I know about it, I'd have to say yes.

TOTENBERG: Back at the hearing, the senators weren't buying Gonzales' testimony either. Here, for example, is Senator Specter questioning Gonzales about his bedside visit to Attorney General Ashcroft in the intensive care unit.

Sen. SPECTER: How can you get approval from Ashcroft for anything when he's under sedation and incapacitated?

Attorney General GONZALES: There are no rules governing whether or not General Ashcroft can decide I'm feeling well enough to make this decision.

Sen. SPECTER: But Attorney General Gonzales, he had already given up his authority as attorney general...

Attorney General GONZALES: And he could always reclaim that. There are no rules about...

Sen. SPECTER: While he's in the hospital under sedation?

Attorney General GONZALES: Again...

TOTENBERG: Democrat Chuck Schumer had other questions.

Sen. SCHUMER: Did the president ask you to go?

Attorney General GONZALES: We were there on behalf of the president of the United States.

Sen. SCHUMER: I didn't ask you that.

Attorney General GONZALES: I understand...

Sen. SCHUMER: Did the president ask you to go?

Attorney General GONZALES: Senator, we were there on behalf of the president of the United States.

Sen. SCHUMER: Why can't you answer that question?

Attorney General GONZALES: That's the answer that I can give you, Senator.

TOTENBERG: With other senators calling for a further inquiry on Gonzales' truthfulness, Chairman Leahy had this to say.

Sen. LEAHY: There's a discrepancy here in sworn testimony, so we're going to have to ask who's telling the truth, who's not.

TOTENBERG: And Republican Specter, glaring at the attorney general, had an ominous message.

Sen. SPECTER: So my suggestion to you, that you review your testimony very carefully. The chairman has already said that the committee is going to review your testimony very carefully to see if your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable.

TOTENBERG: Actionable is a fancy legal word for brining a perjury prosecution. But with President Bush already maintaining he won't enforce congressional contempt citations involving his own White House aides, the question is would he allow his administration to prosecute his own attorney general for lying to Congress?

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You can hear more back and forth and highlights of yesterday's testimony at npr.org.

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Gonzales Denies That He Pressured Ashcroft

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

hide captionU.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

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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