July 31, 2007 — -- Days before Congress is set to adjourn for its August recess, a group of Democrats on Capitol Hill is seeking an impeachment resolution against embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
On Tuesday, Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., sought to introduce the legislation urging the House Judiciary Committee to "investigate fully whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to impeach Alberto R. Gonzales, attorney general of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors."
Six other Democrats joined Inslee, a former prosecutor from Washington State. Reps. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., Michael A. Arcuri, D-N.Y., Tom Udall, D-N.M., Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, Ben Chandler, D-Ky., and Dennis Moore, D-Kan., co-sponsored the legislation.
The House and Senate Judiciary Committees have been investigating the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, and the role Gonzales and senior Justice Department officials played in the dismissals.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, denounced the impeachment move, calling it "a misuse of Congressional power for purely political reasons and a waste of the American public's money and time."
"Democrats have ignored this fundamental principle in their own investigation and have chosen instead to engage in a politically motivated campaign to slander the Justice Department and undermine the credibility of federal law enforcement," Smith continued.
The impeachment resolution is viewed by many on Capitol Hill as symbolic and unlikely to get much traction. But it is the latest display of a lack of support for Gonzales, who has faced a series of challenges this year.
The Democrats' request will move to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration, but it is unclear whether the committee will take up the measure. If it does, the committee would need to vote to send the measure to the full House of Representatives.
A majority vote of the full House would then be required to set up a trial by the Senate. After that trial, a two-thirds majority vote of the Senate would be needed to impeach.
Last week several Senate Democrats called for a perjury investigation on the heels of Gonzales' testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The senators charged that the attorney general lied to Congress about the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance and other intelligence programs.
In July 24 testimony Gonzales dismissed previous statements made by former deputy Attorney General James Comey. Comey had asserted that a March 2004 White House briefing with congressional leaders specifically addressed the National Security Agency's Terrorist Surveillance Program, which allowed the government to use wiretaps without court authorization on U.S. citizens suspected of having links to al Qaeda.
A still classified program, possibly related to TSP, was set to expire the following day. Gonzales testified that the meeting dealt with other surveillance programs but not the TSP.
Gonzales was also questioned during last week's Senate Judiciary hearing about a March 2004 trip to visit then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in the hospital. Gonzales, who was White House counsel at the time, traveled with then-White House chief of staff Andy Card to George Washington University hospital to ask Ashcroft to approve a secret intelligence program.
During May testimony on Capitol Hill, Comey, who was acting attorney general during Ashcroft's recovery, characterized the move as "an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general."
Comey also noted that senior DOJ officials had legal concerns about the secret program.
But Gonzales shot down Comey's interpretation of the meeting during his testimony last week.
"Mr. Comey's testimony about the hospital visit was about other intelligence activities, disagreements over other intelligence activities," Gonzales said.
The Justice Department and the White House have waved off allegations of perjury, explaining that Gonzales' testimony is "difficult to parse" because of the layers of classified information involved.
"Sometimes it's going to lead people to talk very carefully and there's going to be plenty room for interpretation or conclusion," White House press secretary Tony Snow said in a press briefing last week.
Days after testifying before the Senate it seemed that FBI director Robert Mueller bluntly contradicted Gonzales when he testified before the House Judiciary Committee saying, "The discussion was on a national NSA program that has been much discussed, yes."
Intelligence officials have said the program went outside of the normal review process under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act because of the speed and agility needed to quickly counter threats from al Qaeda. The TSP now operates under the jurisdiction of the secret FISA court.
The discrepancy in Gonzales' and Mueller's testimony appears to be over an NSA data mining project that collected millions of American phone records provided by major phone companies. The government has never publicly acknowledged the existence of the program, which has only been cited by anonymous sources in the media.
Gonzales testified, "The president confirmed the existence of one set of intelligence activities," in reference to the TSP program.
The NSA's data mining project with the phone companies has been the subject of lawsuits against the NSA and AT&T by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. In those cases, submissions and declarations by the director of national intelligence stated the cases sought to expose state secrets.
In a May 13, 2006, declaration by John Negroponte, who was then director of national intelligence, the government maintained, "The purpose of this declaration is to formally assert, in my capacity as DNI and head of the United States intelligence community, the military and state secrets privilege … in order to protect intelligence information, sources and methods that are implicated by the allegations in this case. Disclosure of the information covered by these privileged assertions reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States and, therefore, should be excluded from any use in this case."
A letter sent to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., from the current DNI Mike McConnell noted of the program, "Shortly after 9/11, the president authorized the National Security Agency to undertake various intelligence activities designed to protect the United States from further terrorist attack. …The details of the activities changed in certain respects over time, and I understand from the Department of Justice these activities rested on different legal basis.
"In early 2006, as part of the public debate that followed the president's acknowledgement, the administration first used the term 'terrorist surveillance program' to refer specifically" to the intercepting of al Qaeda communications, McConnell noted in the letter. "This is the only aspect of the NSA activities that can be discussed publicly … operational details even of the activity acknowledged and described by the president have not been made public and cannot be disclosed without harming national security. I understand that the phrase 'terrorist surveillance program' was not used prior to 2006 to refer to the activities authorized by the president."
Cindy Cohen, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sent a statement to ABC News, saying of the letter, "the administration has steadfastly maintained that courts may not review its dragnet surveillance activities unless the administration officially acknowledges their existence.
"With this letter, Adm. McConnell gives that official acknowledgment," Cohen continued.
ABC News obtained McConnell's letter just before a classified briefing the DNI provided to members of the Senate on FISA. The DNI and Justice Department sent proposed legislation to Capitol Hill in April to fix some of the loopholes in FISA about international calls, e-mails or other information going through U.S. communication channels. The administration has been asking for this legislation to be passed by Congress before they leave Washington for the August recess.