Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may have put himself in legal jeopardy with his testimony Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senators of both parties warned, as Members cast doubt on the truthfulness of his answers and suggested he may have improperly released classified information in his own defense.
Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) told Gonzales at one point, “I do not find your testimony credible.”
He suggested the committee would “review your testimony to see whether your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable,” an apparent threat to consider charges against the attorney general for lying to Congress. Specter also said it may be time to appoint a special prosecutor to deal with the executive privilege dispute between the White House and Congress over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year.
The primary point of dispute during the hearing was Gonzales’
contention that when he and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card rushed to the hospital room of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004 to seek his approval of an intelligence program, the issue in question was not the broad eavesdropping program that the president has since publicly acknowledged.
Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey had testified in May that with Ashcroft undergoing surgery in March 2004, he was the acting attorney general, and in that capacity he refused to approve the extension of an expiring intelligence program. Comey refused during his testimony to confirm it was the domestic wiretap program that was at issue, but it has long been presumed that’s what he was referencing.
Gonzales himself told reporters in June that Comey had been talking about “what the president has confirmed” — which would be the terrorist surveillance program — but at Tuesday’s hearing, he said he had misspoken during that press conference and later clarified his remarks with a reporter from The Washington Post. He told Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that he could not say exactly what the clarification was because he did not contact the reporter directly and it was handled by somebody on his staff.
Gonzales repeatedly said Tuesday that he went to Ashcroft’s bedside to discuss “other intelligence activities” but refused to accept Schumer’s challenge to give a “yes or no” answer to the question of whether the hospital discussion involved the warrantless wiretap program used to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists.
The distinction matters because Gonzales had previously testified that he knew of no significant dissent within the Justice Department over the surveillance program. But a Senate staffer pointed out that the program may not have been called the terrorist surveillance program at the time because it did not get a name until the president publicly announced it.
In an effort to put the hospital visit “in context,” Gonzales revealed for the first time that on the same day he and Card visited Ashcroft, the “Gang of Eight” — the top two Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders along with the chairmen and ranking members of both chambers’ Intelligence committees — also had a classified White House briefing about Comey’s refusal to reauthorize the same “vitally important intelligence activities” that Gonzales said he went to Ashcroft to approve.