Gonzales on Hot Seat: Senators Probe Terror Program, DOJ Oversight

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales returned to the Capitol Hill hot seat Tuesday, facing pointed questions from senators on issues ranging from the domestic spying program to the firing of U.S. federal prosecutors to his personal judgment.

Out of the gate, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed his displeasure with the embattled attorney general.

Citing a list of issues that "goes on and on," Specter asked, "Is your department functioning? Do you review these matters? How many matters are there which do not come to our attention because you don't tell us and the newspapers don't disclose them?"

And the hot-button issue of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year became a sidebar to the controversy over the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program and other intelligence issues.

Much of the hearing focused on Gonzales' infamous 2004 trip to George Washington University Hospital with then-White House chief of staff Andy Card to have then-Attorney General John Ashcroft authorize a secret intelligence program, despite having ceded his powers to then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey.

Tuesday's hearing, however, seemed to produce more questions than answers.

Visit to Ashcroft

In May, Comey provided dramatic testimony to Congress about racing to the hospital to get to Ashcroft, who was in hospital recovering from surgery from pancreatitis.

"I was angry," Comey testified. "I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general."

Specter expressed his dismay over the event Tuesday, telling Gonzales: "You're going to the hospital of the attorney general, who's no longer in power -- he's delegated his authority -- and seek to extract approval from him. It seems to me that it is just decimating, Mr. Attorney General, as to both your judgment and your credibility."

Describing why they needed to talk to Ashcroft, Gonzales said the attorney general could have reclaimed his powers, "and he could always reclaim that ... there are no rules."

Gonzales indicated that Ashcroft had previously authorized the program, noting, "We believe we had the approval for these activities."

He also testified that there was White House documentation on the program, which he brought with him to the hospital.

'Gang of Eight' Meeting

Gonzales said that at a White House situation room meeting March 10, 2004, the administration advised top congressional leadership and the heads of the intelligence committees, known as the Gang of Eight, that this secret program would no longer continue because the Justice Department would not authorize it. Gonzales said that the members of Congress wanted to continue the program, and this prompted his trip to the hospital with Card.

"We informed the leadership that Mr. Comey felt the president did not have the authority to authorize these activities, and we were there asking for help, to ask for emergency legislation, Gonzales said.

Gonzales tried to elucidate the details of the mysterious trip, but his technical explanation seemed to confuse the senators and reporters covering the hearing. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked the attorney general to respond "yes" or "no" on whether it involved the National Security Agency's terrorist surveillance program, Gonzales would only say, "It involved other intelligence activities."

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