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Context of 'March 4, 2009: Former Reagan Official: Bush Administration’s Actions during ‘War on Terror’ ‘Exemplary’'

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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee concerning his 2004 visit to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital room to pressure Ashcroft into signing a recertification of the NSA’s secret domestic wiretapping program (see March 10-12, 2004). Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey has already testified before the same committee (see May 15, 2007) that Gonzales, then White House counsel, and then-chief of staff Andrew Card tried to pressure Ashcroft, then just hours out of emergency surgery, to overrule Comey, who was acting attorney general during Ashcroft’s incapacitation. Gonzales and Card were unsuccessful, and Comey, along with Ashcroft, FBI director Robert Mueller, and others, threatened to resign if the program wasn’t brought into line with the Constitution. But today Gonzales tells a quite different story. Gonzales tells the committee that he and Card only went to Ashcroft because Congress itself wanted the program to continue (see March 10, 2004), and he and Card merely intended to “inform” Ashcroft about Comey’s decision, and not to try to get Ashcroft to overrule Comey. Many of the senators on the committee are amazed at Gonzales’s contention that Congress wanted Comey overruled. And they are equally appalled at Gonzales’s seemingly cavalier explanation that he and Card were not, as Comey has testified, trying to pressure a sick man who “wasn’t fully competent to make that decision” to overrule his deputy in such a critical matter: Gonzales’s contention that “there are no rules” governing such a matter does not carry much weight with the committee. Many senators, including Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), simply do not believe Gonzales’s explanations; she says that to secure Ashcroft’s reversal was “clearly the only reason why you would go see the attorney general in intensive care.” Gonzales replies that he and Card were operating under what he calls “extraordinary circumstances,” in which “we had just been advised by the Congressional leadership, go forward anyway, and we felt it important that the attorney general, general Ashcroft, be advised of those facts.” Only later in the hearing does Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) force Gonzales to admit that he was indeed carrying a reauthorization order from the White House, something that he likely would not have had if he were not there to secure Ashcroft’s signature. [TPM Muckraker, 7/24/2007] Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) says in his opening statement that Gonzales has “a severe credibility problem,” and continues, “It is time for the attorney general to fully answer these questions and to acknowledge and begin taking responsibility for the acute crisis of leadership that has gripped the department under his watch.” He goes on to note that the Bush administration has squandered the committee’s trust “with a history of civil liberty abuses and cover-ups.” Gonzales garners little trust with his own opening, which states in part, “I will not tolerate any improper politicization of this department. I will continue to make efforts to ensure that my staff and others within the department have the appropriate experience and judgment so that previous mistakes will not be repeated. I have never been one to quit.” [USA Today, 7/24/2007]
'I Don't Trust You' - Arlen Specter (R-PA) is another senator who questions Gonzales’s veracity. “Assuming you’re leveling with us on this occasion,” he says, “…I want to move to the point about how can you get approval from Ashcroft for anything when he’s under sedation and incapacitated—for anything.” Gonzales replies, “Senator, obviously there was concern about General Ashcroft’s condition. And we would not have sought nor did we intend to get any approval from General Ashcroft if in fact he wasn’t fully competent to make that decision. But General—there are no rules governing whether or not General Ashcroft can decide, ‘I’m feeling well enough to make this decision.’” Gonzales adds that the fact that Comey was acting attorney general was essentially irrelevant, as Ashcroft “could always reclaim that. There are no rules.” “While he’s in the hospital under sedation?” Specter asks incredulously. [TPM Muckraker, 7/24/2007] “It seems to me that it is just decimating, Mr. Attorney General, as to both your judgment and your credibility. And the list goes on and on.” [USA Today, 7/24/2007] After Gonzales’s restatement of his version of events, Specter observes tartly, “Not making any progress here. Let me go to another topic.” Gonzales goes on to say that he and Card visited Ashcroft hours after they had informed the so-called “Gang of Eight,” the eight Congressional leaders who are sometimes briefed on the surveillance program, that Comey did not intend to recertify the program as legal, “despite the fact the department had repeatedly approved those activities over a period of over two years. We informed the leadership that Mr. Comey felt the president did not have the authority to authorize these activities, and we were there asking for help, to ask for emergency legislation.” Gonzales claims that the Congressional leaders felt that the program should be reauthorized with or without Comey’s approval, and that since it would be “very, very difficult to obtain legislation without compromising this program…we should look for a way ahead.” Gonzales confirms what Comey has already said, that Ashcroft refused to overrule Comey. “…I just wanted to put in context for this committee and the American people why Mr. Card and I went. It’s because we had an emergency meeting in the White House Situation Room, where the congressional leadership had told us, ‘Continue going forward with this very important intelligence activity.’” Feinstein is also obviously impatient with Gonzales’s testimony, saying, “And I listen to you. And nothing gets answered directly. Everything is obfuscated. You can’t tell me that you went up to see Mr. Comey for any other reason other than to reverse his decision about the terrorist surveillance program. That’s clearly the only reason you would go to see the attorney general in intensive care.” Gonzales says that he and Card were only interested in carrying out the will of the Congressional leadership: “Clearly, if we had been confident and understood the facts and was inclined to do so, yes, we would have asked him to reverse [Comey’s] position.” When Feinstein confronts Gonzales on the contradictions between his own testimony’s and Comey’s, Gonzales retreats, claiming that the events “happened some time ago and people’s recollections are going to differ,” but continues to claim that the prime purpose of the visit was merely to inform Ashcroft of Comey’s resistance to reauthorizing the program. Like some of his fellows, Leahy is reluctant to just come out and call Gonzales a liar, but he interrupts Gonzales’s tortured explanations to ask, “Why not just be fair to the truth? Just be fair to the truth and answer the question.” [TPM Muckraker, 7/24/2007] Leahy, out of patience with Gonzales’s evasions and misstatements, finally says flatly, “I don’t trust you.” [CNN, 7/24/2007]
Whitehouse Grills Gonzales - Whitehouse wants to know if the program “was run with or without the approval of the Department of Justice but without the knowledge and approval of the attorney general of the United States, if that was ever the case.” Gonzales says he believes the program ran with Ashcroft’s approval for two years before the hospital incident: “From the very—from the inception, we believed that we had the approval of the attorney general of the United States for these activities, these particular activities.” It is now that Gonzales admits, under Whitehouse’s questioning, that he indeed “had in my possession a document to reauthorize the program” when he entered Ashcroft’s hospital room. He denies knowing anything about Mueller directing Ashcroft’s security detail not to let him and Card throw Comey out of the hospital room, as Comey previously testified. Whitehouse says, “I mean, 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.” Gonzales replies that Mueller may not have known that he was merely following the wishes of the Congressional leadership in going to Ashcroft for reauthorization: “The director, I’m quite confident, did not have that information when he made those statements, if he made those statements.” [TPM Muckraker, 7/24/2007; CNN, 7/24/2007]
'Deceiving This Committee' - Charles Schumer (D-NY), one of Gonzales’s harshest critics, perhaps comes closest to accusing Gonzales of out-and-out lying. Schumer doesn’t believe Gonzales’s repeated assertions that there was little or no dissent among White House and Justice Department officials about the anti-terrorism programs, and what little dissent there is has nothing to do with the domestic surveillance program. “How can you say you haven’t deceived the committee?” Schumer asks. Gonzales not only stands by his claims, but says that the visit to Ashcroft’s hospital bed was not directly related to the NSA program, but merely “about other intelligence activities.” He does not say what those other programs might be. An exasperated Schumer demands, “How can you say you should stay on as attorney general when we go through exercises like this? You want to be attorney general, you should be able to clarify it yourself.” [Associated Press, 7/24/2007] Specter does not believe Gonzales any more than Schumer does; he asks Gonzales tartly, “Mr. Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?” [CNN, 7/24/2007] In his own questioning, Whitehouse says that he believes Gonzales is intentionally misleading the committee about which program caused dissent among administration officials. Gonzales retorts that he can’t go into detail in a public hearing, but offers to provide senators with more information in private meetings. [Associated Press, 7/24/2007] Gonzales’s supporters will later claim that Gonzales’s characterization of little or no dissent between the White House and the Justice Department is technically accurate, because of differences between the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program and that agency’s data mining program, but Senate Democrats do not accept that explanation (see Early 2004, May 16, 2007).
Executive Privilege Undermines Congressional Oversight? - Specter asks Gonzales how there can be a constitutional government if the president claims executive privilege when Congress exerts its constitutional authority for oversight. Gonzales refuses to answer directly. “Senator, both the Congress and the president have constitutional authorities,” Gonzales says. “Sometimes they clash. In most cases, accommodations are reached.” “Would you focus on my question for just a minute, please?” Specter retorts. Gonzales then replies, “Senator, I’m not going to answer this question, because it does relate to an ongoing controversy in which I am recused,” eliciting a round of boos from the gallery. [CNN, 7/24/2007]
Mueller Will Contradict Gonzales - Mueller will roundly contradict Gonzales’s testimony, and affirm the accuracy of Comey’s testimony, both in his own testimony before Congress (see July 26, 2007) and in notes the FBI releases to the media (see August 16, 2007).
Impeach Gonzales for Perjury? - The New York Times writes in an op-ed published five days after Gonzales’s testimony, “As far as we can tell, there are three possible explanations for Mr. Gonzales’s talk about a dispute over other—unspecified—intelligence activities. One, he lied to Congress. Two, he used a bureaucratic dodge to mislead lawmakers and the public: the spying program was modified after Mr. Ashcroft refused to endorse it, which made it ‘different’ from the one Mr. Bush has acknowledged. The third is that there was more wiretapping than has been disclosed, perhaps even purely domestic wiretapping, and Mr. Gonzales is helping Mr. Bush cover it up. Democratic lawmakers are asking for a special prosecutor to look into Mr. Gonzales’s words and deeds. Solicitor General Paul Clement has a last chance to show that the Justice Department is still minimally functional by fulfilling that request. If that does not happen, Congress should impeach Mr. Gonzales.” [New York Times, 7/29/2007] A Washington Post editorial from May 2007 was hardly more favorable to Gonzales: “The dramatic details should not obscure the bottom line: the administration’s alarming willingness, championed by, among others, Vice President Cheney and his counsel, David Addington, to ignore its own lawyers. Remember, this was a Justice Department that had embraced an expansive view of the president’s inherent constitutional powers, allowing the administration to dispense with following the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Justice’s conclusions are supposed to be the final word in the executive branch about what is lawful or not, and the administration has emphasized since the warrantless wiretapping story broke that it was being done under the department’s supervision. Now, it emerges, they were willing to override Justice if need be. That Mr. Gonzales is now in charge of the department he tried to steamroll may be most disturbing of all.” [Washington Post, 5/16/2007]

Entity Tags: Senate Judiciary Committee, Washington Post, Robert S. Mueller III, Arlen Specter, Alberto R. Gonzales, Andrew Card, “Gang of Eight”, Paul Clement, Sheldon Whitehouse, New York Times, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick J. Leahy, Charles Schumer, Federal Bureau of Investigation, David S. Addington, John Ashcroft, National Security Agency, James B. Comey Jr.

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Four Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee request that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales be investigated for perjury in light of his contradictory testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the NSA warrantless wiretapping program (see July 24, 2007). “It has become apparent that the attorney general has provided at a minimum half-truths and misleading statements,” the four senators—Charles Schumer (D-NY), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Russ Feingold (D-WI), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)—write in a letter to Solicitor General Paul Clement calling for a special counsel to investigate. “We ask that you immediately appoint an independent special counsel from outside the Department of Justice to determine whether Attorney General Gonzales may have misled Congress or perjured himself in testimony before Congress.” [Senate Judiciary Committee, 7/26/2007] (The letter is sent to Clement because he would be the one to decide whether to appoint a special counsel. Gonzales and outgoing Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty have recused themselves from any such investigation due to their own involvement in the incidents. The next person in line at the Justice Department, acting Associate Attorney General William Mercer, lacks the authority to make such a decision.) [CBS News, 7/26/2007] Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who did not sign the letter but supports the request for a special counsel, says, “I’m convinced that he’s not telling the truth.” The call for a special counsel follows earlier testimony by FBI director Robert Mueller that flatly contradicted Gonzales’s testimony (see July 26, 2007), though White House spokespersons denied that Mueller contradicted Gonzales.
White House Denies Perjury Allegation - White House press secretary Tony Snow says the apparent contradictions stem from Gonzales’s and Mueller’s restrictions in testifying in public about the classified program. “The FBI director didn’t contradict the testimony,” Snow says. “It is inappropriate and unfair to ask people to testify in public settings about highly classified programs. The president, meanwhile, maintains full confidence in the attorney general.” And Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse insists that Gonzales was referring during his testimony to a separate intelligence operation that has not yet been revealed, though numerous other sources have contradicted that position (see July 25, 2007). “The disagreement that occurred in March 2004 concerned the legal basis for intelligence activities that have not been publicly disclosed and that remain highly classified,” Roehrkasse says.
Further Instances of Misleading Testimony - Senate Democrats also assert that Gonzales has repeatedly given false and misleading testimony about the US attorney firings, has been part of a White House program to encourage White House aides to ignore Congressional subpoenas, has falsely claimed that he has never discussed the firings with other witnesses (including White House aide Monica Goodling, who recently testified that she discussed the firings with Gonzales), and other instances of deception. Schumer says, “There’s no wiggle room. Those are not misleading [statements]. Those are deceiving. Those are lying.” [Associated Press, 7/26/2007] Schumer says at a press conference later in the day, “The attorney general took an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Instead, he tells the half-truth, the partial truth and everything but the truth. And he does it not once, and not twice, but over and over and over again. His instinct is not to tell the truth but to dissemble and deceive.…I have not seen anything like it from a witness in the 27 years that I have been in Congress.” Feingold adds, “Based on what we know and the evidence about what happened in terms of the gang of eight and what he said in that sworn testimony in the committee, I believe it’s perjury.…Not just misleading—perjury.” [US Senate, 7/26/2007] Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) does not sign the letter asking for the investigation, and has instead sent his own letter to Gonzales giving him a week to resolve the inconsistencies in his testimony. “The burden is on him to clear up the contradictions,” Leahy says. Leahy is joined by ranking Republican committee member Arlen Specter (R-PA), who says the call for a special counsel is premature. Specter accuses Schumer of “throwing down the gauntlet and making a story in tomorrow’s newspapers.” [Associated Press, 7/26/2007] Specter has suggested that Gonzales resign instead of continuing as attorney general. [USA Today, 7/26/2007]
'Linguistic Parsing' - Justice Department aides acknowledge that Gonzales’s self-contradictory testimonies have caused confusion because of his “linguistic parsing.” [New York Times, 7/26/2007]

Entity Tags: Paul J. McNulty, Robert S. Mueller III, Senate Judiciary Committee, US Department of Justice, Tony Snow, Sheldon Whitehouse, William W. Mercer, Paul Clement, Patrick J. Leahy, Russell D. Feingold, Monica M. Goodling, Alberto R. Gonzales, Arlen Specter, Charles Schumer, Brian Roehrkasse, Harry Reid, National Security Agency, Dianne Feinstein

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

David Rivkin, a lawyer in the Justice Department during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Rivkin is testifying in regards to committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT)‘s proposal to form a Congressional “Truth Commission” to investigate the Bush administration’s conduct of its “war on terror.” Rivkin, like many other Bush supporters, is opposed to such a commission. He tells the committee: “Yes, mistakes were made. Yes, some bad things happened. But compared with the historical baseline of past wars, the conduct of the United States in the past eight years… has been exemplary.” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) disagrees. He responds, “I would suggest, Mr. Rivkin, that until you know, and we all know, what was done under the Bush administration, you not be so quick to throw other generations of Americans under the bus, and assume that they did worse.” [TPM Muckraker, 3/4/2009]

Entity Tags: Patrick J. Leahy, Bush administration (43), David Rivkin, US Department of Justice, Reagan administration, Sheldon Whitehouse, Senate Judiciary Committee

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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