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Leahy presses Gonzales to clarify testimony about spying

Says attorney general might face perjury probe

Senator Patrick Leahy wants contradictions addressed. Senator Patrick Leahy wants contradictions addressed.

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales must quickly clarify apparent contradictions in his testimony about warrantless spying or risk a possible perjury investigation, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said yesterday.

"This is going to have a devastating effect on law enforcement throughout the country if it's not cleared up," said Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

"If he doesn't correct it, then I think that there are so many errors in there that the pressure will lead very, very heavily to whether it's a special prosecutor, a special counsel, efforts within the Congress."

Appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation," Leahy also said he was ready to work with the Bush administration to modernize a law that governs how intelligence agencies monitor the communications of suspected terrorists.

President Bush used his weekly radio address Saturday to urge Congress to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 so the law can better keep pace with the latest technology used by terrorists.

Democrats have indicated that they do not want to rush ahead with any changes, seeking to ensure that civil liberties are protected and the executive branch is not granted unfettered surveillance powers. But the Bush administration says its latest request is narrowly drawn and urgently needed to stymie terrorist threats.

"The proposal would make clear that court orders are not necessary to effectively collect foreign intelligence about foreign targets overseas," the national intelligence director, Mike McConnell, wrote congressional leaders Friday. He urged action before Congress departs on a monthlong summer vacation early next month.

Last week, four Democrats on Leahy's committee asked Paul Clement, solicitor general, for a special investigation of Gonzales. The request came after FBI Director Robert S. Mueller appeared to contradict Gonzales's statements to Congress about internal administration dissent over the president's secretive wiretapping program, the Democrats said.

Gonzales told that committee the program was not at issue when, as White House counsel, he made a dramatic visit to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's hospital room in 2004. Testimony of Mueller, before the House Judiciary Committee, suggested it was.

The statement only compounded problems for Gonzales, who is losing support among members of both parties even as he retains Bush's. The nation's top law enforcement official has faced growing questions about his credibility since Congress began investigating the firings of federal prosecutors seven months ago.

Yesterday, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, the top Republican on Leahy's committee, made clear that he believed the Justice Department would be better off without Gonzales. But he said it would be premature to begin a perjury investigation until the committee could find out the facts.

Specter said on the CBS program that he and Leahy had not been fully briefed on the administration's classified spy programs and thus could not determine whether it was true, as the White House asserted, that the hospital dispute did not center on the surveillance program but a facet that remains classified.

The New York Times, citing anonymous officials it declined to name, reported yesterday that the 2004 dispute was over computer searches through massive electronic databases, which contain records of phone calls and e-mail messages of millions of Americans. If the dispute chiefly involved data mining, that raised the question as to whether Gonzales might be technically correct.