Gonzales Denies Improper Pressure on Ashcroft
By DAVID JOHNSTON and SCOTT SHANE | July 25, 2007
WASHINGTON, July 24 — Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales denied on Tuesday that he had improperly pressured John Ashcroft to sign an authorization for the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program in 2004 when Mr. Ashcroft, his predecessor, lay in a hospital bed, in pain and on sedatives after surgery.
Mr. Gonzales, in an acrimonious hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that hours before the hospital confrontation, the White House had summoned Congressional leaders to an emergency meeting to discuss ways to head off a revolt at the Justice Department against the security agency program.
Mr. Gonzales said that he and Andrew H. Card Jr., then White House chief of staff, had tried to obtain Mr. Ashcroft’s approval as a last resort, after the lawmakers rejected emergency legislation but recommended that the program should continue despite the Justice Department’s opposition. Mr. Gonzales, who was then White House counsel, said he felt compelled to enlist Mr. Ashcroft’s help to obtain the reauthorization.
“Obviously, there was concern about General Ashcroft’s condition, and we would not have sought, nor did we intend to get any approval from General Ashcroft if in fact he wasn’t fully competent to make that decision,” Mr. Gonzales testified.
But some Congressional Democrats disputed Mr. Gonzales’s account of the White House meeting, and Justice Department aides acknowledged in a background briefing for reporters after the hearing that his “linguistic parsing” had caused confusion.
Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, who attended the 2004 meeting as the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Mr. Gonzales’s account “untruthful.” Mr. Rockefeller said he believed Mr. Gonzales was deliberately misleading Congress about the showdown over the N.S.A. program inside the Bush administration.
Mr. Gonzales endured the nearly four-hour battering at the hearing with a calm, sometimes bewildered expression. He insisted he would stay on as attorney general despite his low credibility in Congress.
Democratic lawmakers portrayed the Justice Department as rudderless and demoralized, and they voiced deep skepticism about his leadership, often with sarcastic and derisive criticism. For the first time, several lawmakers suggested his statements about the surveillance programs were so misleading that his testimony might lead to potential legal sanction.
“I just don’t trust you,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Democrat of Vermont and the panel’s chairman, who urged Mr. Gonzales to review carefully his testimony — a warning that committee lawyers would examine it for possible intentional misstatements. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the panel’s senior Republican who has long been critical of Mr. Gonzales, went further, saying, “Your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable.”
Mr. Gonzales’s account added fresh detail to what was previously known about the hospital confrontation in which Mr. Ashcroft, who had had gallbladder surgery, and other senior Justice Department officials had threatened to resign until President Bush agreed to modify the program.
His account also contrasted sharply with the recollection of James B. Comey, a former deputy attorney general who worked under both Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Gonzales. Mr. Comey testified before the committee in May that he had been “very angry” during the hospital encounter because “I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.”
Mr. Comey said he and Mr. Ashcroft had serious reservations about renewing the surveillance authorization based on a legal review by the Justice Department. The intelligence-gathering operation was later modified, in ways that are still not clear, to overcome Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Comey’s main objections.
At the hearing, several senators attacked Mr. Gonzales’s assertions under oath in testimony last year that there had been no disagreement inside the Bush administration over the N.S.A. surveillance program.
Mr. Specter asked Mr. Gonzales, “What credibility is left for you when you say there’s no disagreement?”
In answers that seemed to perplex and further exasperate senators, Mr. Gonzales said his past testimony about the program was correct. He said there was no debate about the N.S.A. program whose existence was confirmed by Mr. Bush in December 2005, after it was disclosed by The New York Times.
He insisted, however, that there were other “intelligence activities” that prompted the dispute in 2004 in which Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Comey and other Justice Department officials had threatened to quit.
Some senators expressed disbelief at the distinction Mr. Gonzales was seeking to make. “You’re not being straightforward with this committee,” Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said. “You’re deceiving us.”
Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, a Judiciary Committee member who also sits on the Intelligence Committee and has been briefed on the classified N.S.A. activities, said he was “appalled” by Mr. Gonzales’s testimony. “I believe your testimony is misleading at best,” Mr. Feingold said. He said he could not elaborate in an unclassified hearing.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, who also sits on both the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees said he agreed with Mr. Feingold, stating, “I have exactly the same perception.”
Other lawmakers who were not at the hearing but who attended the meeting on March 10, 2004 at the White House, also challenged Mr. Gonzales’s account. Mr. Rockefeller and Representative Jane Harman of California, who in 2004 was the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, insisted that there was only one N.S.A. program, making Mr. Gonzales’s assertions inaccurate.
“The program had different parts, but there was only one program,” Ms. Harman said, adding that Mr. Gonzales was “selectively declassifying information to defend his own conduct,” which she called improper.
But another member of the Gang of Eight — the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and House and of the two Intelligence Committees _— supported Mr. Gonzales’s version. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he confirmed the attorney general’s testimony that the group reached a “consensus” that the disputed intelligence activity should continue and that passing emergency legislation would risk revealing secrets.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who attended the 2004 White House meeting as House Democratic minority leader, said through a spokesman that she did not dispute that the majority of those present supported continuing the intelligence activity. But Ms. Pelosi said she dissented and supported Mr. Comey’s objections at the meeting, said the spokesman, Brendan Daly.