Friday, July 27, 2007
Alberto Gonzales Lied to Congress. "The President Supports Him." - Tony Snow
WASHINGTON, July 26 — The dispute over the truthfulness of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales reached a new intensity today as the F.B.I. Director, Robert S. Mueller 3rd, contradicted Mr. Gonzales’s sworn testimony before a Senate committee.
Mr. Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee that the Bush administration’s secret eavesdropping program was the main topic at an encounter in the hospital room of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft on March 10, 2004, contrary to what Mr. Gonzales told a Senate panel on Tuesday.
At the time, Mr. Gonzales was the White House counsel, and Mr. Ashcroft was recovering from gall bladder surgery. That March night, Mr. Gonzales went to the hospital room with Andrew H. Card Jr., then White House chief of staff.
In his testimony before the Senate panel on Tuesday, Mr. Gonzales said the subject in the hospital room was “intelligence activities” under debate in the administration, but not the secret eavesdropping program.
But Mr. Mueller contradicted that version of events today, several hours after four Senate Democrats called for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate whether Mr. Gonzales perjured himself before Congress.
Mr. Mueller was testifying at an F.B.I. oversight hearing when he was questioned by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas.
“Did you have an understanding that the conversation was on T.S.P.?” the Congresswoman asked, using the shorthand for terrorist surveillance program.
“I had an understanding the discussion was on an N.S.A. program, yes,” Mr. Mueller replied, using the abbreviation for the National Security Agency. A moment later, he added that the discussion was on the warrantless eavesdropping program “that has been much discussed, yes.”
The conflict in accounts could be significant, because Mr. Gonzales’s critics have accused him of trying to convey the false impression that the N.S.A. program had spawned no serious dissension within the Bush administration.
But former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey has testified that Justice Department lawyers were balking at recertifying the program early in 2004 and that he thought Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card rushed to the hospital to persuade Mr. Ashcroft, who was not at full capacity, to overlook his own objections to the program.
Mr. Mueller said that after receiving a call from Mr. Comey he went to the hospital, arriving shortly after Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card left, and that after he spoke with Mr. Ashcroft he understood that the N.S.A. program was indeed the focus of the dramatic bedside encounter. (Editor's Note: Why doesn't somebody just ask Ashcroft?)
There have been repeated instances in which lawmakers have questioned Mr. Gonzales’s competence and his recollection of events. But today’s developments seemed to mark a shift toward suggestions that he actually committed crimes in testifying before Congress.
The four senators who sought a special counsel are all members of the Judiciary Committee. They urged Solicitor General Paul D. Clement in a letter to name an independent counsel from outside the Justice Department. “It has become apparent that the attorney general has provided at a minimum half-truths and misleading statements,” the senators wrote.
While the four were asking for a special counsel, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, announced that a subpoena was being issued to Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief political adviser, to provide information on the firings last year of nine federal prosecutors. The White House has asserted executive privilege in resisting Congressional demands for testimony by present and former presidential aides.
The request that the solicitor general name a special counsel to investigate Mr. Gonzales marked a new stage in the long-running controversy over his stewardship of the Justice Department. Mr. Gonzales’s most outspoken critics suggested today that the attorney general might have committed crimes, including perjury and obstruction of justice, when he testified about President Bush’s domestic-surveillance program and the dismissal of the nine United States attorneys.
The four senators — Charles E. Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — zeroed in today on Mr. Gonzales’s testimony that there had been no internal dissent over the president’s warrantless eavesdropping program and that an emergency meeting at the White House in March 2004 concerned subjects other than the secret eavesdropping operation.
“Both of those statements appear to be false,” Mr. Schumer said today. “We know from senators who were there, and we know from a letter from John Negroponte,” he went on, referring to the former director of national intelligence. “It’s in black and white.”
The letter from the four senators was addressed to the solicitor general because Mr. Gonzales has recused himself, as has the outgoing deputy attorney general, Paul J. McNulty.
A Justice Department spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, said on Wednesday that Mr. Gonzales stood by his testimony. And the White House spokesman, Tony Snow, said today that Mr. Bush still stood by Mr. Gonzales.
After Mr. Gonzales’s most recent testimony on Tuesday, Justice Department aides acknowledged in a background briefing for reporters that the attorney general had caused confusion by his “linguistic parsing.” A special counsel, if one is named, would presumably try to determine if any of Mr. Gonzales’s ambiguous statements were outright lies.
Senator Feinstein said today that Mr. Gonzales has often given “misleading and often untrue statements to Congress,” and that she had never seen “an attorney general so contemptuous of Congress and his role as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States.”
A spokesman for the Democratic majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, told The Associated Press that Mr. Reid supported the request for a special counsel.Senator Leahy said he was subpoenaing Mr. Rove because “the accumulated evidence shows that political considerations factored into the unprecedented firing” of the federal prosecutors last year. A subpoena is also being issued for J. Scott Jennings, a White House political aide, Mr. Leahy said.
United States attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, and the people in those posts typically change when administrations change. But once installed, United States attorneys have traditionally been free of explicit political interference. Democrats have asserted that the nine who were let go last year may have been victims of cynical political calculations.
Mr. Leahy has said explicitly that he simply does not trust Mr. Gonzales. Today, Mr. Leahy sent a letter to Mr. Gonzales inviting him to change his testimony to cleanse himself of any possible perjury charges, and to do so by the end of next week.
Aboard Air Force One on the way to Philadelphia today, the White House spokesman, Mr. Snow, said that, contrary to the Democrats’ assertions, Mr. Gonzales has been consistent and that “the president supports him.” Mr. Snow suggested that what some see as deliberate inconsistencies in Mr. Gonzales’s accounts may be a reflection of the complexity of the issues being discussed.
President Bush was accompanied on his visit to Philadelphia by Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. Mr. Specter has been as critical of Mr. Gonzales as have the Democrats, and he told reporters that he might talk to the president today about his concerns, The Associated Press reported.
Later, after returning to Washington, Mr. Specter declined to discuss what he and the president had talked about. Asked whether he supported the call for a special counsel, which was led by Senator Schumer, Mr. Specter said he did not.
Regarding Mr. Gonzales’s testimony, Mr. Specter said: “There are very complex questions that have to be answered on looking at the record. But Senator Schumer’s not interested in looking at the record. He’s interested in throwing down the gauntlet and making a story in tomorrow’s newspapers.”
Mr. Specter pointed out that Senator Leahy had not signed the letter to the solicitor general.