Attorney General Gonzales' Credibility Attacked
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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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