Democrats Call for Special Counsel in Gonzales Case

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Questions over whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales perjured himself before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday have prompted Senate Democrats to call for a special counsel to investigate the matter. Under questioning, Gonzales insisted a 2004 meeting was not related to the terrorist surveillance program.


A document from the National Intelligence director has congressional Democrats threatening a perjury investigation into Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The memo shows congressional leaders were briefed in 2004 about the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program just before a dramatic confrontation in a hospital room. Attorney General Gonzales told senators on Tuesday that the confrontation was over a different program.

NPR justice correspondent Ari Shapiro is here to sort this out for us. Good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now why does it matter whether these officials were debating the Terrorist Surveillance Program or something else?

SHAPIRO: Well, it gets right to the question of whether Gonzales lied under oath, because last year he testified that there were no major disagreements at the Justice Department over the spying program that the president confirmed. That's the program the administration refers to as TSP, or the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

But then former Deputy Attorney General James Comey said there was a huge disagreement in 2004. This was back when Gonzales was White House counsel, and the disagreement came to a head in a hospital room, where Gonzales' predecessor as attorney general, John Ashcroft, was very ill. Ashcroft had given the attorney general authority over to Comey, and Gonzales came to the hospital room to try to get Ashcroft to override Comey and reauthorize this program.

So jump ahead to this week, where on Tuesday, Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said there was this meeting with congressional leaders just before he went to the hospital to confront Comey, and he said that this whole disagreement was over some other intelligence activities. So now we have this document from the director of National Intelligence that shows the briefing with congressional leaders on March 10th, 2004 was about the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

MONTAGNE: So does that mean Gonzales lied?

SHAPIRO: Well, I'll play a clip. It gets right to the heart of this question. This is from Tuesday's hearing. You're going to hear Democratic Senator Charles Schumer talking to Attorney General Gonzales. And this cut sounds repetitious, but here's why it's important. Schumer is trying to nail down the attorney general and get a yes or no answer. Was this meeting about TSP, the Terrorist Surveillance Program? And you're going to hear that Gonzales just will not give Schumer the yes or no that he's looking for.

(Soundbite of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing)

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Yes or no?

Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Department of Justice): The disagreement and the reason we had to go to the hospital had to do with other intelligence activities.

Sen. SCHUMER: After TSP, if you say it's about other, that implies not. Now say it or not.

Attorney General GONZALES: It was not - it was about other intelligence activities.

Sen. SCHUMER: Was it about the TSP? Yes or no, please. That's vital to whether you're telling the truth to this committee.

Attorney General GONZALES: It was about other intelligence activities.


MONTAGNE: And what does the Justice Department say about this?

SHAPIRO: Well, last night, I reached spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. He said Gonzales stands by his testimony from Tuesday.

MONTAGNE: And how is Congress reacting to all of this?

SHAPIRO: Well, they're clearly on the hunt. Yesterday, the Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said he's going to give Gonzales until late next week to revise his testimony, then he'll ask the Justice Department's inspector general to open a perjury investigation. And there maybe even more drama on Capitol Hill today because the FBI director is scheduled to testify before Congress - Robert Mueller. He was apparently part of this hospital room standoff, and he's expected to support Comey's version of the story of his testimony.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, where did this document come from?

SHAPIRO: Well, the funny thing is the administration declassified it a year ago in hopes of showing skeptical Democrats that lawmakers had been thoroughly briefed on this program. Now the document is apparently coming back to bite them.

MONTAGNE: Ari, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR justice correspondent, Ari Shapiro.

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