Gonzales Digs a Deeper Hole
Just when it seemed that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' reputation on Capitol Hill couldn't possibly get much worse, he showed up Tuesday for yet another hearing. And as with so many of his recent appearances before Congress, his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee raised a lot more troubling questions than it answered — not just about his own conduct of and honesty about the U.S. Attorney firings, but also about the Administration's domestic intelligence gathering programs.
That new wrinkle stemmed from Gonzales' testy exchange with Senator Arlen Specter, the panel's top Republican. Specter opened up with former Deputy Attorney General James Comey's testimony to the panel in May over Gonzales' actions while serving as White House Counsel. Comey had alleged that Gonzales tried to convince an ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was in the hospital recovering from gallbladder surgery, to sign off on Bush's warrantless wiretapping program. "There are no rules saying he couldn't take back authority," Gonzales said, trying to explain that they had hoped Ashcroft might be able to sign off on an intelligence program due to expire the next day, a program that Comey as acting AG had refused to renew.
But what Specter really wanted to know was how that meeting squared with Gonzales' previous testimony that there had been no serious internal disagreements over the program. Gonzales seemed to believe he had a simple explanation. "The disagreement that occurred was about other intelligence activities, and the reason for the visit to the hospital was about other intelligence activities," the Attorney General said. "It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people."
Both Specter and later Senator Chuck Schumer latched onto Gonzales' puzzling comment. Schumer in particular brought up several examples where in sworn testimony Gonzales has named the Terrorist Surveillance Program as the one at issue during the hospital visit to Ashcroft's room. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy then ordered a complete review of Gonzales' statements to the committee. "This is such a significant and major point," Leahy said. "There's a discrepancy here in sworn testimony and we're going to find out who's telling the truth."
Specter later circled back to Gonzales on the matter, warning him: "My suggestion to you is you review your testimony to find out if your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable," Specter said. The maximum penalty for being caught lying to Congress is five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 per count. Specter wryly noted to reporters during a break that there is a jail in the Capitol complex.