By Elana Schor
July 24, 2007
Under questioning by Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the Judiciary panel’s ranking Republican, Gonzales appeared to contradict his past assertions about the May testimony of James Comey, former No. 2 at the Justice Department.
Comey told senators that Gonzales, then White House counsel, had pressured the hospitalized Ashcroft to grant legal approval to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) system of wiretapping suspected terrorists without a court order. Gonzales confirmed Comey’s account last month, but contradicted it on Tuesday.
“The disagreement that occurred, and the reason for the visit to the hospital … was about other intelligence activities,” Gonzales told Specter. “It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people.”
Specter appeared angrily skeptical of the reversal: “Do you expect us to believe that?” he asked Gonzales. Gonzales also sought to clarify his reasons for circumventing Comey, whom Ashcroft temporarily vested with the attorney general’s powers during his hospitalization.
“He could always reclaim that [authority],” Gonzales charged. “There are no rules.”
During Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) round of questioning, Gonzales appeared to revert back to his earlier acknowledgement that the standoff with Ashcroft had occurred over the NSA program. That wiretapping was brought under court supervision by the administration last year, though President Bush has reserved the right to restart it.
“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,” Feinstein said.
“OK, you are right,” Gonzales acknowledged, arguing that “we were confronting extraordinary circumstances where we had been advised that something that the department had authorized for two years, they would no longer continue to approve.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) pressed Gonzales further, setting off promises from several senators, including Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), to examine the public record for evidence that Gonzales perjured himself before Congress.
“This is serious, because it looks like you’ve deceived us,” Schumer told Gonzales.
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