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Gonzales loses ground on the Hill

His explanations leave senators questioning his candor and honesty.

July 25, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday accused Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales of repeatedly misleading Congress and suggested that he had perjured himself in connection with statements to lawmakers about an anti-terrorism program.

One after another, Democrats -- and some Republicans -- accused Gonzales of a pattern of deceit in addressing issues from his role in last year's firing of top prosecutors to his 2004 participation in an unusual late-night visit to the hospital room of his ailing predecessor, John Ashcroft.

"You've come here seeking our trust," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, told Gonzales. "Frankly, Mr. Attorney General, you've lost mine. And this is something I've never said to any Cabinet member before."

The hearing was Gonzales' first opportunity to describe under oath his version of a March 10, 2004, standoff in Ashcroft's hospital room over recertifying President Bush's wiretapping program.

But his explanation again was met with skepticism.

The attorney general's appearance was designed in part for Gonzales to repair fractured relations with members of Congress; his credibility has suffered under the weight of multiple controversies. But if anything, he lost ground -- as his explanations of missteps and statements raised even more questions from senators about his candor and truthfulness.

"I do not find your testimony credible, candidly," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) 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."

While Gonzales still enjoys the support of Bush, the confrontation was remarkable for the ridicule heaped upon the nation's top law-enforcement officer.

Gonzales said he wanted to stay at the Justice Department to fix problems that have surfaced during his tenure, including evidence that politics has infected hiring practices at the department.

But lawmakers said Gonzales was the principal problem, and they questioned whether the steps he was taking would make a difference.

The attorney general's performance Tuesday reinforced the impression of some who believe he is out of touch with Justice Department policy issues.

Gonzales was confronted with a May 2006 memo in which he authorized expanded communications with White House officials, including the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, regarding pending investigations.

"What on Earth business does the office of the vice president have in the internal workings of the Department of Justice with respect to criminal investigations, civil investigations, ongoing matters?" Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked.

Gonzales acknowledged that he did not have a good answer. "As a general matter, I would say that that's a good question," he said, eliciting laughter from the dozen or so protesters in the audience.

James B. Comey, a former Ashcroft deputy, told the committee this spring that he believed Gonzales -- along with then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. -- had tried to strong-arm Ashcroft into overriding objections Comey had to an administration anti-terrorism program.

Ashcroft had named Comey acting attorney general while he was recovering from gallbladder surgery.

Gonzales, who at the time was White House counsel, defended his actions Tuesday, saying that he decided to involve Ashcroft only after an emergency meeting with senior congressional leaders in the White House Situation Room. He said "the consensus" was the program should be continued, even though Comey objected.

Gonzales said he knew that Ashcroft was seriously ill; the encounter took place a day after surgery, while he was in intensive care. But Gonzales denied trying to take advantage of a sick man: "We never had any intent to ask anything of him if we did not feel that he was competent."

Gonzales also said the disagreement was not about the Terrorist Surveillance Program that Bush ordered after Sept. 11 that authorized warrantless monitoring of domestic phone calls and e-mails with suspected terrorists overseas. Rather, he said, the disagreement was over "other intelligence activities," which he declined to describe.

The distinction is important because Gonzales told the committee last year that he was aware of no serious dissent within the administration over the warrantless wiretap program.

Democrats and Republicans alike questioned whether Gonzales was being truthful in attempting to explain his earlier testimony.

Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused Gonzales of obfuscation. "The path to that kernel of truth is so convoluted and is so contrary to the plain import of what you said, that I, really, at this point have no choice but to believe that you intended to deceive us," he said.

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