Embattled AG Facing Possible Perjury Probe
White House slams push for investigation, calling Congress "out of control."
July 26, 2007— -- The political firestorm surrounding embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is far from subsiding, with Democrats calling for a perjury investigation and Gonzales' own FBI director seeming to contradict his sworn statements.
Politicians usually shun using words like "lying" -- they prefer to use tamer diction such as "misleading."
Not so at a Thursday press conference held by four Senate Democrats, who called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Gonzales for perjury after mounting challenges to his sworn testimony before Congress.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who also led the charge to have a special prosecutor appointed in the CIA Leak investigation, called it a "sad moment" at the press conference on Capitol Hill.
"Enough is truly enough," he said. "For months we have seen the department of justice unravel like a ball of yarn."
Sens. Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., hurled invectives at Gonzales.
"He just doesn't tell the truth," said Feinstein, accusing Gonzales of "obfuscation, prevarication and untruths."
"I have never seen an Attorney General as contemptuous of Congress," she said.
"I believe it's perjury," said Feingold. "Not just misleading -- perjury."
Feingold was referring to Gonzales's Tuesday testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The attorney general dismissed then-Acting Attorney General James Comey's statement that a March 10, 2004 White House briefing with congressional leaders specifically addressed the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which allowed the government to use wiretaps without court authorization. A still-classified program, possibly related to TSP, was set to expire the following day.
It was after that meeting that Gonzales, at the time White House counsel, along with then-White House chief of staff Andy Card, went to the hospital, apparently to ask that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft re-authorize the program, despite having ceded his powers to Comey while he recovered from surgery.
In May, Comey provided dramatic testimony to Congress about racing to the hospital to get to Ashcroft. "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."
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill Thursday, FBI Director Robert Mueller backed Comey's account during a hearing held by the House Judiciary Committee.
In his first public comments about the now-infamous visit, Mueller confirmed to the panel that he and Comey scrambled to post agents outside Ashcroft's hospital room.
Mueller in his usual crisp, blunt style said, "I don't dispute what Mr. Comey said."
The Senate Judiciary Committee's senior Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, expressed his dismay over the event, telling Gonzales Tuesday: "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" against it.
Gonzales indicated that Ashcroft had previously authorized the program, noting, "We believe we had the approval for these activities."
Gonzales also testified that the White House briefing "involved other intelligence activities."
Both Whitehouse and Feingold, also members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, jumped on that assertion, which has also been contradicted by two participants in the briefing -- Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., and Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif.
Additionally, a letter from then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte to then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. confirms that the March 10 meeting addressed the TSP.
"These are not just 'misleading,'" said Schumer, referring to the seeming contradictions. "These are 'deceiving.' These are 'lying.'"
But Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse downplayed the allegations, saying in a statement Thursday that "confusion is inevitable when complicated classified activities are discussed in a public forum, where the greatest care must be used not to compromise sensitive intelligence operations."
Roehrkasse's statement went on to tease out differences in some of the government's terror surveillance programs, insisting that Gonzales' statements have been ingenuous.
At Tuesday's hearing, Specter alluded to the possibility that the committee would examine whether Gonzales has lied to Congress. "My suggestion to you is that you review your testimony very carefully," Specter said. "The chairman's already said that the committee's going to review your testimony very carefully to see if your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable."
But Specter did not join in on his colleagues' latest move.
"Do I support Senator Schumer's request for a special prosecutor? No," Specter said. "I think Senator Schumer has made a practice of politicizing this matter."
Specter has been very critical of Gonzales, but he called Schumer's request "precipitous" and says it's "highly significant" that the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is not a signatory on Schumer's letter.
"We have a little bit of Don Quixote here. Everybody is riding off in different directions trying to get on a front page," Specter said.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto responded to the news by calling Congress "out of control," with Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino adding, "Give me a break – it's amazing to me that the Democrats find a way every day to avoid doing the work Americans care about, like education, health care, energy, fiscal discipline, and preventing terrorists from attacking us again."
The Senators also took issue with Gonzales's assertion on February 6, 2006, that within the Bush administration "there has not been any serious disagreement about the" Terrorist Surveillance Program -- which was contradicted by Comey's May testimony.
In addition, Gonzales testified to Congress on April 19, 2007 that, "I haven't talked to witnesses because of the fact that I haven't wanted to interfere with this investigation," referring to the controversy surrounding the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year.
Former Justice Department White House liaison Monica Goodling on May 23, 2007 testified that Gonzales tried to talk to her about the controversy, after Congress had begun to look into the matter. This made her "a little uncomfortable," Goodling said. "I just did not know if it was a conversation we should be having."
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