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Truce or consequences

Enough bickering over executive privilege. The White House and Congress need to compromise.

July 28, 2007

Given the Bush administration's stonewalling, it's understandable that members of Congress would raise the stakes in their attempt to learn the full truth about the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. But other than emotional release for frustrated Democrats, not much is likely to come of either contempt citations for White House aides who have balked at testifying or a proposal that a special counsel be named to investigate Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. Congress' best bet remains a deal that would recognize the importance of executive privilege while allowing Congress to question Bush aides aggressively and on the record. As for Gonzales (who should have quit months ago), if Congress believes that he has lied under oath, it can begin impeachment proceedings against him.

This week, the House Judiciary Committee voted to begin contempt-of-Congress proceedings against former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers and Bush's chief of staff, Joshua Bolten. In the Senate, four Democrats on the Judiciary Committee -- including California's Dianne Feinstein -- asked U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement to appoint a special counsel to investigate whether Gonzales committed perjury in testimony to Congress. In their letter to Clement, the acting attorney general for matters from which Gonzales has recused himself, the senators said that Gonzales had given the committee "at a minimum half-truths and misleading statements about the removal and replacement of U.S. attorneys, about his role in trying to circumvent Acting Attorney General [James] Comey, and about the administration's position on the [National Security Agency] wiretapping program."

They're right. On Thursday, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III joined those disputing Gonzales' recollection that his infamous 2004 visit to then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's hospital room involved an argument about something other than the NSA spying program -- a program about which Gonzales had said last year that there was no "serious disagreement" inside the administration. Gonzales has been evasive and self-contradictory. But "half-truths" and "misleading statements" aren't perjury. That may be why the letter to Clement wasn't signed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) or ranking Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a caustic critic of Gonzales.

Criminal wrongdoing is also hinted at in a voluminous report issued by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in conjunction with contempt proceedings against Miers and Bolten. Conyers is right when he says "unanswered questions" justify the panel's attempts to obtain documents and testimony from the White House. But those questions are unlikely to be answered as the result of a drawn-out campaign to punish Bush aides for contempt. Congress' focus should be on pressing the president to embrace a compromise floated by Specter and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in which Miers, Karl Rove and others would testify for the record but not under oath.

If the besieged Bush wants a cease-fire with Congress, he will endorse that compromise -- and announce it on the same day Gonzales reveals that he wants to spend more time with his family.

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