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Angry senators suggested a special prosecutor should investigate misconduct at the Justice Department, accusing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday of deceit on the prosecutor firings and President Bush’s eavesdropping program.
Democrats and Republicans alike hammered Gonzales in four hours of testimony as he denied trying, in 2004, to push a hospitalized former attorney general into approving a counterterror program that the Justice Department then viewed as illegal.
Gonzales, alternately appearing wearied and seething, vowed anew to remain in his job even as senators told him outright they believe he is unqualified to stay.
He would not answer numerous questions, including whether the Bush administration would bar its U.S. attorneys from pursuing contempt charges against former White House officials who have defied congressional subpoenas for their testimony.
“It’s hard to see anything but a pattern of intentionally misleading Congress again and again,” Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., told Gonzales during the often-bitter Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “Shouldn’t the attorney general of the United States meet a higher standard?”
“Obviously, there have been instances where I have not met that standard, and I’ve tried to correct that,” Gonzales answered.
The hearing rekindled a political furor that began with last year’s firings of nine U.S. attorneys and led to disclosure of a Justice Department hiring process that favored Republican loyalists. Gonzales has soldiered on with President Bush’s support, despite repeated calls for his resignation and questions about his role in a hospital room confrontation with former Attorney General John Ashcroft over whether to renew a classified but potentially illegal national security program.
“Of course the president continues to have full confidence in the attorney general,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said after the hearing ended.
In one withering exchange, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., noted a potential need for a special prosecutor to bring contempt citations against two White House officials who have refused to testify about the U.S. attorney firings. The House Judiciary Committee will vote Wednesday on the citations against Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten and former presidential counsel Harriet Miers.
Normally, the U.S. attorney in Washington would bring such criminal contempt charges to a federal grand jury. But Gonzales repeatedly refused to say whether he would allow a presidentially appointed prosecutor to investigate White House aides who Bush has said are covered by executive privilege and therefore exempt from talking.
That leaves open the door for presidents to shut down the checks-and-balances of congressional oversight, Specter said.
“You’re asking me a question that’s related to an ongoing controversy,” Gonzales protested.
Specter, top Republican on the panel, said he was merely asking if Gonzales recognized the constitutional problem at hand.
“Would you focus on my question for just a minute, please?” Specter asked.
He added: “I’m not going to pursue that question, Mr. Attorney General, because I see it’s hopeless. … You’re the attorney general, and you’re also a lawyer. And we’re dealing with a very fundamental controversy.”
In another flashpoint, Gonzales denied he tried to pressure the ailing Ashcroft into renewing the counterterror program in March 2004, as recounted in testimony earlier this year by former Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey. At the time, Ashcroft refused to give his OK to Gonzales and then-White House chief of staff Andy Card, saying he had delegated authority to make that decision to Comey, who questioned the program’s legality.
Gonzales described the encounter at Ashcroft’s hospital bedside as having come at the bidding of congressional leaders who urged the administration to continue the program. He said he and Card “didn’t press him. We said ‘Thank you’ and we left.”
“We went there because we thought it was important for him to know where the congressional leadership was on this,” Gonzales said.
Senators furiously accused Gonzales of misleading them a year ago when he testified there were no internal objections to the eavesdropping program that targeted suspected terrorists in the United States. Gonzales, however, said the hospital confrontation dealt with a different intelligence program that he would not identify.
“The disagreement that occurred, and the reason for the visit to the hospital, senator, was about other intelligence activities,” Gonzales said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Gonzales’ refusal to answer direct questions about the program demonstrated deceit.
“How can you say you should stay on as attorney general when we go through exercises like this?” Schumer asked. “You want to be attorney general, you should be able to clarify it yourself.”
“There’s a discrepancy here in sworn testimony, added committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “We’re going to have to ask who’s telling the truth, who’s not.”
After numerous apologies and promises to repair the Justice Department, the normally placid Gonzales was visibly frustrated and at times angered at senators unwillingness to move past the controversy. He flinched as the hearing ended and protesters loudly heckled him as he shook lawmakers’ hands.
Yet Gonzales also tried to appease senators who asked why he hasn’t resigned.
“Would you please explain to us why the administration of justice and the American people would not be better served by somebody sitting in the office who does not have all of the problems that you possess with respect to believability, credibility, confidence, trust?” asked Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis.
“Ultimately I have to decide whether or not it would be better for me to leave or just stay and try to fix the problems,” Gonzales said with a rueful smile. “I’ve decided to stay and fix the problems.”