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FBI Chief Contradicts Gonzales' Testimony

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said Thursday the government's terrorist surveillance program was the topic of a 2004 hospital room dispute between top Bush administration officials, contradicting Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' sworn Senate testimony.

Mueller was not in the hospital room at the time of the dramatic March 10, 2004, confrontation between then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and presidential advisers Andy Card and Gonzales, who was then serving as White House counsel. Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee he arrived shortly after they left, and spoke with the ailing Ashcroft.

This comes in the wake of Senate Democrats calling for a perjury investigation against Gonzales on Thursday and subpoenaing top presidential aide Karl Rove in a deepening political and legal clash with the Bush administration.

"It has become apparent that the attorney general has provided at a minimum half-truths and misleading statements," four Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote in a letter to Solicitor General Paul Clement.

They dispatched the letter shortly before Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced the subpoena of Rove, the president's top political strategist, in remarks on the Senate floor. The White House has claimed executive privilege to block congressional demands for documents or testimony by some current and former presidential aides. President Bush, meanwhile, has continued to support Gonzales.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., traveling with Mr. Bush on Thursday, said the backing stems from the president's personal loyalty to Gonzales, a longtime friend.

Democrats issued a laundry list of examples of what one called Gonzales' "lying" before Congress.

"We have now reached a point where the accumulated evidence shows that political considerations factored into the unprecedented firing of at least nine United States Attorneys last year," said Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Gonzales is at the center of the U.S. Attorney controversy, but the call for a perjury probe involved alleged conflicts between testimony he gave the Judiciary Committee in two appearances, one last year and the other this week. The issue revolves around whether there was internal administration dissent over the president's warrantless wiretapping program.

Also at issue, the Democrats said, is a conflict between Gonzales' testimony that he had not spoken with other witnesses about the firings and his former White House liaison's account of an "uncomfortable" conversation" in which the attorney general reviewed his recollection of the events and asked her opinion.

"There's no wiggle room," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the four lawmakers to sign the letter. "It's not misleading. Those are deceiving. Those are lying."

And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters, "I'm convinced that he's not telling the truth," based on conversations with Democrats on the Judiciary Committee.

As for the firing of the prosecutors, e-mails released by the Justice Department show Gonzales' aides conferred with Rove on the matter.

Leahy also said he was issuing a subpoena for J. Scott Jennings, a White House political aide. The deadline for him and Rove to comply was set as Aug. 2.

"For over four months, I have exhausted every avenue seeking the voluntary cooperation of Karl Rove and J. Scott Jennings, but to no avail," the Vermont lawmaker said. "They and the White House have stonewalled every request. Indeed, the White House is choosing to withhold documents and is instructing witnesses who are former officials to refuse to answer questions and provide relevant information and documents."

In response to the Senators' letter, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, "Every day congressional Democrats prove that they're more interested in headlines than doing the business Americans want them to do. And Americans are now taking notice that this Congress, under Democratic leadership, is failing to tackle important issues," he said.

The call for a perjury investigation marked yet another complication for Gonzales, whose fitness to serve has been bluntly criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike.

In a separate letter Thursday to Gonzales, Leahy said he would give the attorney general eight days to correct, clarify or otherwise change his testimony "so that, consistent with your oath, they are the whole truth."

In their letter to Clement, the four senators wrote that Gonzales' testimony last year that there had been no internal dissent over the president's warrantless wiretapping program conflicted with testimony by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey and with Gonzales' own statements this week before the Judiciary Committee.

They also said Gonzales falsely told the panel that he had not talked about the firings with other Justice Department officials. His former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, told the House Judiciary Committee under a grant of immunity that she had an "uncomfortable" conversation with Gonzales in which he outlined his recollection of what happened and asked her for her reaction.

"The attorney general should be held to the highest ethical standards," the senators wrote.

Clement would decide whether to appoint a special prosecutor because Gonzales and outgoing Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty have recused themselves from the investigation that involves them. The Justice Department's No. 3 official, Associate Attorney General William Mercer, is serving only in an acting capacity and therefore does not have the authority to do so.

At issue is what was discussed at a March 10, 2004, congressional briefing. A letter from then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said the briefing concerned the administration's terrorist surveillance program on the eve of its expiration.

But Gonzales, at Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, repeatedly testified that the issue at hand was not about the terrorist surveillance program, which allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on suspects in the United States without receiving prior court approval.

Instead, Gonzales said, the emergency meetings on March 10, 2004, focused on an intelligence program that he would not describe. He said the meeting prompted him to go to the bedside of ailing then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to recertify the surveillance program, but he denied pressuring Ashcroft to do so. Ashcroft, recovering from gall bladder surgery, refused.

White House press secretary Tony Snow defended Gonzales on Thursday but would not talk about the subject of the 2004 briefing.

"Unfortunately we get into areas that you cannot discuss openly," Snow said. "It's a very complex issue. But the attorney general was speaking consistently. The president supports him. I think at some point this is going to be something where members are going to have to go behind closed doors and have a fuller discussion of the issues. But I can't go any further than that."

Specter, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, took issue with White House decisions surrounding the declaration of executive privilege to prevent top Bush aides from testifying about the firings of U.S. Attorneys. A House committee voted this week to hold Bush's chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, and former counsel Harriet Miers, in contempt for refusing to testify.

Specter said he was incredulous that the administration would not allow the U.S. Attorney to prosecute a contempt citation. He said that means the president is claiming sole authority to determine when executive privilege applies.

"That cannot stand up in a constitutional democracy," the senator said.

He said Congress at this point has several options:

  • Appoint a special prosecutor to handle the criminal contempt citations;
  • Switch to civil contempt proceedings;
  • Impeachment, or inherent contempt proceedings.

    "I would still like to see it worked out," Specter said.

    He said Mr. Bush is right to fight hard for the institutional power of the executive branch, and that every branch must do this or see its powers erode. But executive privilege is "always a judgment call," Specter added, and never absolute. He said that the other branches of government must be able to have checks on them when it applies.

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