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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was back before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. The hearing brought new revelations about domestic spying and more apparent contradictions from the attorney general.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: When Alberto Gonzales last testified before this committee back in April, senators almost seemed to feel sorry for him. That day, most of the members on the panel urged him to resign, and many seemed to expect that he would do so. Today, any pity the senators had was gone. Instead, they seemed contemptuous and angry at the man who remains attorney general even after more than half of the Senate has moved to hold a no-confidence vote in him.
The Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy blatantly told Gonzales…
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont: Chairman Senate Judiciary Committee): I don't trust you.
SHAPIRO: And this was a typical comment from the committee's top Republican Arlen Specter.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): It is just decimating, Mr. Attorney General, as to both your judgment and your credibility.
SHAPIRO: Specter was referring there to a comment Gonzales made under oath months ago that there was no serious disagreement within the Justice Department about the president's domestic spying program. In fact, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey said there was a major disagreement in 2004 when Gonzales was White House counsel. Attorney General John Ashcroft was in a hospital then. Comey was acting attorney general. And Comey said Gonzales went to Ashcroft's hospital room and tried to get Ashcroft to overrule Comey and reauthorize the spying program.
Today, Specter asked Gonzales, in light of that story, how can you say there was no disagreement about the program? Gonzales explained…
Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Attorney General, U.S. Justice Department): 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. Now, I would like the opportunity…
Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?
SHAPIRO: Democrat Russ Feingold is on the intelligence committee, which has been fully briefed on the program. He told Gonzales.
Sen. FEINGOLD: I've had the opportunity to review the classified matters at issue here and I believe that your testimony was misleading at best.
SHAPIRO: In case the verbal battery wasn't enough, Democrat Charles Schumer brought visual aids - a chart with some of the key comments Gonzales has made about the incident. One of them was from a press conference in June.
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): You said Mr. Comey's testimony related to a highly classified program, which the president confirmed to the American people some time ago.
SHAPIRO: The program the president confirmed, not other intelligence activities as Gonzales said at this hearing. The attorney general told Schumer that his comment at the press conference was a misstatement that he later fixed.
Mr. GONZALES: I clarified my statement two days later with the reporter…
Sen. SCHUMER: What did you say to the reporter?
Mr. GONZALES: I did not speak directly to the reporter.
Sen. SCHUMER: Oh, wait a second. You did not? Okay. What did your spokesperson say to the reporter?
Mr. GONZALES: I don't know, but I told the spokesperson to go back and clarify my statement…
Sen. SCHUMER: But wait a minute, sir - sir, with all due respect…
SHAPIRO: Schumer would have none of it.
Sen. SCHUMER: You just constantly change the story seemingly to fit your needs to wiggle out of being caught, frankly, telling mistruths.
SHAPIRO: Gonzales tried to explain that he only went to Ashcroft's hospital room to get the program reauthorized after top Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate said they supported the program.
Mr. GONZALES: We had an emergency meeting in the White House Situation Room where the congressional leadership had told us, continue going forward with this very important intelligence activity.
SHAPIRO: The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee in 2004 was Congresswoman Jane Harman. Today, NPR reached her by phone.
Representative JANE HARMAN (Democrat, California): It is surprising and disappointing to hear the attorney general of the United States selectively declassify material that he claims was discussed at these meetings. I think that's highly improper.
SHAPIRO: Harman says she is not allowed to discuss in detail was took place at that meeting and she has no notes about it since it was classified.
Rep. HARMAN: But the meeting is focused on operational details, not the legal underpinnings of the program.
SHAPIRO: Although domestic spying was a major focus of today's hearing, it was not the only issue. One senator brought out a newly revised Justice Department manual about prosecuting voting cases. The old version had sections prohibiting prosecutions that could affect an election. The new version eliminates or waters down those parts. Gonzales said he wasn't aware of the changes. And Senator Specter talked about the looming showdown over whether top administration officials can testify about U.S. attorney firings and other matters. The administration recently suggested that federal prosecutors won't enforce contempt charges when the president invokes executive privilege. Specter said…
Senator SPECTER: If that is to happen, the president can run the government as he chooses, answer no questions, say it's executive privilege, he can't go to court and the president's words stand.
GREENE: He suggested asking the solicitor general to appoint a special prosecutor. Since Gonzales has recused himself from the issue, the attorney general said he would have no influence on the decision.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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