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.
John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and was among the congressional leaders Gonzales said was briefed before the Ashcroft hospital visit, accused Gonzales of fabricating the account.
“He is making up something to protect himself,” Rockefeller said in a briefing with reporters after the judiciary committee hearing. Asked if Gonzales had deliberately misled Congress, Rockefeller said: “Based on what I know about it, I’d have to say yes.”
Rockefeller said lawmakers had received briefings on only one intelligence operation, the warrantless wiretapping. The program was confirmed by Bush after it was disclosed in media reports in December 2005.
Responding to those comments, the Justice Department issued a statement saying the attorney general stood by his testimony. “We find Chairman Rockefeller’s statements about his lack of familiarity with this issue puzzling, since the chairman’s committee has been conducting oversight on this very specific issue,” said spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
Gonzales also was questioned Tuesday about an allegation that he had attempted to shape the testimony of a former top aide who was about to appear before Congress. Monica Goodling told the House Judiciary Committee this spring that Gonzales had tried discuss with her the events leading up to the U.S. attorneys’ firings and that the encounter made her “uncomfortable.”
Leahy noted that Gonzales previously had told the committee that he was not speaking with anyone about the firings because he did not want to interfere with the investigation.
“So your earlier testimony was wrong?” Leahy asked Tuesday.
“I wouldn’t say that it was wrong,” Gonzales replied.
“My conversation with her was not to shape her testimony. My conversation with her was to simply reassure her that as far as I knew, no one had done anything intentionally wrong here. I think she was confused and I think needed reassurance.”
Gonzales also was asked about the decision of the White House, based on a Justice Department legal opinion, to assert executive privilege and decline to turn over documents and testimony to congressional investigators examining the firings of the U.S. attorneys.
The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote today on a resolution holding White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former Bush counsel Harriet E. Miers in contempt for their refusal to cooperate with the investigation.
The White House has indicated that it will not permit the Justice Department to prosecute people for congressional contempt because of the belief that the law does not apply to cases where presidential aides are invoking executive privilege.
Saying the administration’s positions on executive privilege and prosecuting contempt cases were effectively preventing Congress from exercising its oversight responsibility of the executive branch, Specter asked Gonzales whether he thought “you can have a constitutional government” under those circumstances.
Gonzales observed that Congress and the president have separate powers under the U.S. Constitution, and that “in very rare instances, they sometimes litigate it in the courts.”
“Would you focus on my question for just a minute, please?” Specter said.
Gonzales said he could not comment because he said the question related to “an ongoing controversy in which I am recused.”
“I’m not going to pursue that question, Mr. Attorney General,” Specter concluded, “because I see it’s hopeless.”