Leahy to Gonzales: 'Why not just be fair to the truth?'
After a brief recess in an oversight hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the senators continued to challenge Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on his conduct in a 2004 hospital visit to Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) probed Gonzales on whether or not the surveillance program he sought legal re-approval for as White House Counsel had already been declared legal by the Attorney General. The Senator seemed to imply that Gonzales was being evasive.
"I'm just trying to nail that one fact down," he said.
"I'm not sure I want to give you complete comfort on that point out of fairness to others involved in what happened here," Gonzales responded.
The response appeared to draw the ire of Senator Leahy.
"Why not just be fair to the truth and answer the question?" he interjected to cheers from the audience.
Gonzales finally acknowledged that, "General Ashcroft was read into these activities and did approve these activities...from the beginning, I believe, from the very beginning."
Whitehouse then said he was concerned that FBI Director Robert Mueller had to ask the agents who were guarding Ashcroft not to leave the sedated Attorney General alone with Gonzales.
"When the FBI Director considers you so nefarious that FBI agents had to be ordered not to leave you alone with the stricken Attorney General, that's a fairly serious challenge," the Rhode Island Democrat said.
Gonzales insisted that Mueller did not understand the seriousness of the legislative and legal issues surrounding the controversy when he made that remark to his agents.
Schumer accuses Gonzales of deception, wiggling
Senator Schumer addressed the intelligence program that was at the heart of the controversy between then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey and Gonzales. The New York Democrat presented a series of quotations by the Attorney General that he said were contradictory about how many classified programs were involved in the dispute.
"We know from Jim Comey that virtually the entire leadership of the Justice Department was prepared to resign over concerns about a classified program. Disagreement doesn't get more serious than that," he said. "And what program was the ruckus all about?"
He added, "Please help us understand how you didn't mislead the committee," referring to Gonzales' distinction between the Terrorist Surveillance Program and 'other intelligence activities' and his statement that there was no dissent over the TSP.
After a set of rapid consultations with aides sitting behind him, Gonzales clarified his remarks.
"I'm told that...in the press conference, I did misspeak, but I went back and clarified it with a reporter," he said.
He also said that the correction was made in a Washington Post report by Dan Eggen two days after the press conference in question. Gonzales also later added that a spokesman, not the Attorney General himself, had clarified the question with Eggen.
Schumer accused Gonzales of deception.
"This is constant, sir, in all due respects, with you," the New York Senator chided. "You constantly make statements that are clear on their face that you're deceiving the committee, and then you go back and say that 'I corrected the record two days later.' How can we trust your leadership when the basic facts about serious questions that have been in the spotlight, you just constantly change the story seemingly to fit your needs to wiggle out of being caught for telling mistruths?"
Schumer then warned Gonzales that he was 'close to the edge.'
"You want to be Attorney General, you should be able to clarify it yourself, right now, and not leave it to a spokesperson who you don't know what he said," he warned.
After listening to the exchange, Senator Leahy stated that he would "ask for a review of the transcript" because there was a "discrepancy in sworn testimony" over the issue.
Gonzales chided for 'ambiguity' on torture
Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) then challenged Gonzales on the legal implications of the recent executive order issued by President George W. Bush on torture and the Geneva Conventions.
Durbin was particularly concerned that Gonzales would not rule out interrogation techniques like waterboarding.
"Mr. Attorney General, do you know what you are saying to world about the United States when you refuse to acknowledge that [certain interrogation] techniques are beyond the law, beyond the tradition of America?" Durbin asked.
He added, "If you cannot be explicit about the standards of conduct and the values of this country when it comes to the use of torture, you create an ambiguity that unfortunately reflects badly on America around the world, and invites those who would take American citizens as captives and detainees to also suggest...we can go a little further than perhaps international law allows."
Senator Kennedy later took the questioning further. He pointed to the new Bush executive order's prohibition of such activities as sexual mutilation, rape, or denigrating religion.
He then asked, "If those are prohibited, why aren't you willing to prohibit the other kinds of activities that were outlined earlier, in terms of the waterboarding, stress, dogs, nudity, mock executions?"
Gonzales responded, "There are certain other activities where it is not so clear, Senator, and it is for those reason that I can't discuss them."
On Goodling: 'Which one of you is telling the truth?'
Senator Leahy sought details from the Attorney General on whether or not the Justice Department had taken steps to eliminate political considerations in the hiring of career personnel. Former Gonzales staffer Monica Goodling acknowledged that she had considered political affiliations in career hiring decisions.
When Gonzales confirmed that steps were taken, Leahy asked if the White House was still using political considerations in Justice Department hiring.
"I don't know if I've communicated with the White House about that," Gonzales answered.
To laughter, Leahy then said, "It might not be a bad idea."
The Chairman then inquired about Goodling's statement that she had a conversation with Gonzales about the Attorney firings that made her uncomfortable.
"Which one of you is telling the truth?" Leahy asked, pointing out that Gonzales had said he was only trying to comfort her.
Gonzales stuck to his claim that he was "consoling an emotionally distraught woman." He went on to insist that he had not interfered with her testimony.