Questions about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's integrity and competence have swirled inside Washington for months. But a dispute over his truthfulness before Congress last week could spell new trouble for--and a potential criminal investigation of--the embattled head of the Justice Department.
The most recent controversy over Gonzales centers on what exactly the definition is of the Terrorist Surveillance Program, widely believed to describe the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance activities, including its eavesdropping on domestic phone calls without the usual court oversight.
Though the dispute over what precisely the program entailed may seem like linguistic parsing, in fact it may determine whether Gonzales testified truthfully before Congress. Several members of Congress claim he did not, and those allegations have now led to bipartisan calls for a special counsel investigation, opening a new front in the ongoing scandals at the Justice Department.
The current questions stem from Gonzales's testimony before Congress in 2006, when he said there had been no serious dissent over the Terrorist Surveillance Program. His statements came into question this May when former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified before Congress as part of the ongoing scandal into the December firing of the U.S. attorneys.
Comey's testimony brought to light bitter differences within the Justice Department over the program. Comey refused to continue the program, and the dispute culminated in a fateful March 2004 visit by Gonzales, White House counsel at the time, to then Attorney General John Ashcroft's hospital bedside in a last-ditch effort to get him to sign off on the program's reauthorization.
But Gonzales, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, stood by his previous statements. His explanation: that the hospital visit had involved "other intelligence activities"--not the Terrorist Surveillance Program. His comments, however, quickly came under further scrutiny when FBI Director Robert Mueller, testifying later in the week before the House Judiciary Committee, seemed to confirm Comey's account.
Over the weekend, the situation became further muddled when the New York Times reported that there had been a serious debate over "data mining" operations that combed databases of E-mail and phone records for potential terrorist activity. That may have been what Gonzales was referring to as "other intelligence activities."
Some Democrats responded that it was essentially all the same thing. Whether it is or it isn't, now Sens. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, have given Gonzales until August 3 to correct his testimony. If he doesn't, there may be calls for a special prosecutor to examine whether Gonzales might have committed perjury in his testimony.
But that's not the only dispute brewing between Congress and the Bush administration over the Justice Department.
There's also a showdown looming over two subpoenas issued to White House aides Karl Rove and Scott Jennings as part of the congressional probe into the administration's controversial firing of U.S. attorneys. Congress has subpoenaed Rove and Jennings for testimony August 2, and while they have yet to respond, the White House has already blocked testimony from two previous aides, Harriet Miers and Sara Taylor, claiming executive privilege.
If Rove and Jennings aren't allowed to testify fully on the matter, it could escalate into a constitutional dispute between the executive and legislative branches of government. And the political theater could continue its summerlong run.
By Emma Schwartz