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Senators accuse Gonzales of deceit

Suggest special prosecutor may be needed

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would not answer numerous questions, including whether the administration would bar its US attorneys from pursuing contempt charges against former White House officials who have defied congressional subpoenas. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would not answer numerous questions, including whether the administration would bar its US attorneys from pursuing contempt charges against former White House officials who have defied congressional subpoenas. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified yesterday that top congressional leaders from both parties agreed in March 2004 to continue a classified surveillance activity that Justice Department officials had deemed illegal, a contention immediately disputed by key Democratic lawmakers.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, and Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, who were briefed on the program at the time, said there was no consensus that it should proceed. Three others who were at the meeting also said the legal underpinnings of the program were never discussed.

"He once again is making something up to protect himself," Rockefeller said of the embattled attorney general.

The dispute came as Gonzales weathered one of the most contentious and hostile congressional hearings seen during the Bush administration, as Democrats and the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee accused him of repeatedly misleading them and warned that he could face perjury charges if he lied to the panel.

"I do not find your testimony credible, candidly," said Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who became visibly angry at several points during his exchanges with Gonzales. "The committee's going to review your testimony very carefully to see if your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable."

Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told Gonzales bluntly: "I don't trust you."

The session was a political low point for the attorney general, who has watched his reputation erode over the past seven months in Congress, in public opinion polls and among many of his own employees.

Gonzales has found himself in the middle of a running controversy over the firings of nine US attorneys by his department, and House and Senate lawmakers have demanded documents and testimony that the White House has refused to provide. Gonzales has also been accused of making misleading statements about issues including FBI civil liberties abuses and a warrantless surveillance program run by the National Security Agency.

Specter appeared to raise the stakes for Gonzales and the administration yesterday by suggesting that a special prosecutor may be needed to file contempt charges against the White House officials who have refused to honor congressional subpoenas.

Much of yesterday's to-and-fro involved a controversial episode on the evening of March 10, 2004, when Gonzales and then-White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. visited the hospital bed of then-attorney general John Ashcroft, who was recovering from gallbladder surgery.

Gonzales, providing his first detailed public account of the incident, testified that it followed an emergency meeting that afternoon with the "Gang of Eight," consisting of the bipartisan leaders of the House, the Senate, and both intelligence committees. Gonzales said the congressional leaders had agreed that a classified surveillance program aimed at terrorists should continue despite objections by James Comey, the acting attorney general during Ashcroft's illness.

"Mr. Comey had informed us that he would not approve the continuation of a very important intelligence activity, despite the fact the department had repeatedly approved those activities over a period of over two years," Gonzales said. "The consensus in the room from the congressional leadership is that we should continue the activities, at least for now. . . . We felt it important that the attorney general knew about the views and the recommendations of the congressional leadership."

Gonzales said that he and Card "never had any intent to ask anything of him if we did not feel that he was competent," adding that he was "lucid" and did most of the talking during the meeting. Gonzales acknowledged that, as Comey testified, Ashcroft declined to overrule Comey.

Gonzales' testimony differed from an account Comey provided to the same committee in May. Comey said that he had rushed to the hospital after learning that Gonzales was headed there, and that he believed Gonzales and Card sought "to take advantage of a very sick man." Comey did not mention any discussion in the room about the congressional leadership's views.

Pelosi, Rockefeller, and former senator Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, members of the Gang of Eight at the time, also sharply disputed Gonzales' claims about the White House meeting. Daschle said in a statement that he could not recall the specific meeting and is "quite certain that at no time did we encourage the AG or anyone else to take such actions. This appears to be another attempt to rewrite history."

Rockefeller said that lawmakers were never asked to give the program their approval, and that administration officials' infrequent briefings about it were short and involved "virtually no questions."

The Bush administration has repeatedly refused to describe which classified program was at issue, but officials have said privately that it is related to a warrantless counterterrorism surveillance effort by the National Security Agency that the president confirmed after aspects of it were leaked to the public. Gonzales has said several times that the disputed program was not precisely the same as what Bush confirmed.

Three people who were present, but who declined to be identified discussing classified activities, said the March 2004 meeting in the White House Situation Room was an operational briefing on the NSA surveillance program. The legal underpinnings of the program were never discussed, they said, but the congressional group raised no objections and agreed that the program should go forward, they said.

Gonzales said he intended to stay on as attorney general to "fix the problems" that occurred on his watch, including the improper use of political considerations in hiring career employees.