Senators say Gonzales lied
The Hill
By Elana Schor
July 25, 2007

The Senate veered closer to a contempt finding against the White House on Tuesday after  an acrimonious appearance by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, with the Judiciary Committee's senior Republican offering options for taking the Bush administration to court.

Gonzales struggled under a verbal battering from senators that grew unusually personal as the hearing wore on. Several Democrats directly suggested that the besieged attorney general had lied to the committee, indicating they would scour the record for evidence of official perjury.

"How can we trust your leadership when … you just constantly change the story, seemingly to fit your needs to wiggle out of being caught, frankly, telling mistruths?" Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) blasted Gonzales for saddling the Department of Justice (DoJ) with "a lack of credibility — candidly, your personal credibility."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) lamented that Gonzales' performance has so compromised his agency that "it's almost as it the walls were actually crumbling on this huge department."

"There's a discrepancy here in sworn testimony," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who earned a clamor of applause from protesters after telling Gonzales to "be fair to the truth."

Specter advised Gonzales to request appointment of a special prosecutor to challenge the White House's claim to broad executive privilege in defying congressional subpoenas in the investigation of mass U.S. attorney firings. The administration already has said it would tell the capital's federal prosecutor, Jeffrey Taylor, not to pursue any contempt case to court.

Otherwise, Specter told Gonzales, the Senate could pursue an inherent contempt trial in the Judiciary panel — an approach that would avoid using floor time and risking a filibuster.

"If the president has the power, by controlling the D.C. U.S. attorney, to stop a judicial determination on whether executive privilege has been properly invoked, that means the president can invoke executive privilege on everything, not answer to anybody," Specter said during a break in Gonzales' testimony.

The decision to tap a special prosecutor rests with Solicitor General Paul Clement, who became the DoJ's point man on the U.S. attorneys probe after Gonzales recused himself. But Specter suggested a court fight with the White House is likely inevitable: "We're not quite there yet, but it looks like we're heading there."

Meanwhile, Gonzales sparked the ire of several Judiciary panel members by appearing to reverse himself on the controversial 2004 hospital visit he made to his predecessor, John Ashcroft. In May, former DoJ No. 2 James Comey shocked the Hill by testifying that the ill Ashcroft was pressured to approve the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic eavesdropping program by Gonzales, then White House counsel, and Andy Card, then White House chief of staff.

Not only did Gonzales dispute Comey's account, but at first he attempted to convince senators that the hospital fight occurred over an entirely different intelligence program.

"It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people," Gonzales told Specter.

"Do you expect us to believe that?" the Pennsylvanian shot back.

Under further questioning from Feinstein and Schumer, Gonzales reversed himself again and agreed that Comey's testimony was correct in its reference to a legal dispute over the domestic eavesdropping of suspected terrorists without a court order.

Gonzales argued that the hospital visit occurred after the "Gang of Eight," the elite group of congressional leaders and intelligence committee chairmen who are kept apprised of highly classified programs, signaled him to go ahead with the program without Comey's agreement. Specter and Democrats, however, were intensely skeptical.

When the Senate would move on a contempt proceeding is unclear. Specter suggested using the 1988 trial of Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), then a federal judge accused of bribery, as a model. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) chaired the 12-member panel that impeached Hastings, with Specter as vice chairman.

Unlike impeachment, however, inherent contempt historically has involved asking the sergeant-at-arms to personally hold targeted individuals, a dramatic touch that Specter dismissed.

Inherent contempt has not been invoked for more than seven decades, "because it has been considered too cumbersome and time-consuming to hold contempt trials at the bar of the offended chamber," according to this year's version of the Congressional Research Service oversight manual.

"The idea that Congress passes a law to require an underling to hold his boss in contempt is pretty odd," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a Judiciary member and former U.S. attorney, said of the predicament faced by Taylor, now the U.S. attorney for the capital. "That's not really the best way to do it."

But Sessions, considered an administration loyalist, appeared to acknowledge that Specter and panel Democrats have a legitimate claim to judicial action on a contempt citation. He questioned whether "other vehicles" might be found to give Congress standing in court to pursue its own case, without involving federal prosecutors in the suit.

Meanwhile, several other controversial issues arose during Gonzales' testimony. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked the embattled attorney general about a May 2006 memo that added to an Ashcroft initiative allowing significantly more White House officials to discuss pending Justice investigations. An addendum to that memo, signed by Gonzales, gave Vice President Cheney and Bush equal rights to the information.

"On its face, I must say, sitting here, I'm troubled by this," Gonzales told Whitehouse of the memo's treatment of Cheney.

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