'What Credibility Is Left for You?'


Is Alberto Gonzales a liar? Several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee seem to think so, but the attorney general is so evasive and unforthcoming that it's hard to be sure. Last year, for instance, he denied there had been any debate within the administration about the legality of the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program. In May former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified that he and his boss, John Ashcroft, had refused to sign off on a reauthorization of the program in 2004 because of concerns about its legal basis. Yesterday Gonzales, who was the White House counsel at the time, admitted this conflict occurred but said it involved different, unspecified "intelligence activities." 

Gonzales also confirmed that he and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card went to Ashcroft's hospital room, where he was recovering from gallbladder surgery, and urged him not to let the intelligence program expire, but he denied that he tried to take advantage of Ashcroft's illness, as Comey charged. "Obviously," Gonzales told the committee, "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." Gonzales said he just wanted to let Ashcroft know that congressional leaders who were briefed on the program wanted it to continue. Two Democratic senators who supposedly expressed that sentiment, South Dakota's Tom Daschle and West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller, yesterday denied that they had.

Not surprisingly, Democrats on the committee were skeptical of Gonzales' testimony. "You've come here seeking our trust," said the chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). "Frankly, Mr. Attorney General, you've lost mine. And this is something I've never said to any cabinet member before." Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) told Gonzales, "It's hard to see anything but a pattern of intentionally misleading Congress again and again. Shouldn't the attorney general of the United States meet a higher standard?" To which Gonzales replied, "Obviously, there have been instances where I have not met that standard [the standard of not intentionally misleading Congress?], and I've tried to correct that."

Most striking was the response of the committee's ranking Republican, Arlen Specter, who stopped just short of calling Gonzales a liar. "What credibility is left for you?" he asked. "I do not find your testimony credible, candidly. The chairman's already said that the committee's going to review your testimony very carefully to see if your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable."