By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007
The Justice Department said yesterday that it will not retract a sworn statement in 2006 by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that the Terrorist Surveillance Program had aroused no controversy inside the Bush administration, despite congressional testimony Tuesday that senior departmental officials nearly resigned in 2004 to protest such a program.
The department's affirmation of Gonzales's remarks raised fresh questions about the nature of the classified dispute, which former U.S. officials say led then-Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey and as many as eight colleagues to discuss resigning.
Testifying Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Comey declined to describe the program. He said it "was renewed on a regular basis" and required the attorney general's signature.
He said a review by the Justice's Office of Legal Counsel in spring 2004 had concluded the program was not legal.
Comey said he and the others were prepared to resign when the White House renewed the program after failing to get a certification of its legality -- first from him and later from then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, while Ashcroft was ill and heavily sedated at George Washington University Hospital.
Gonzales, testifying for the first time in February 2006 about the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which involved eavesdropping on phone calls between the United States and places overseas, told two congressional committees that the program had not provoked serious disagreement involving Comey or others.
"None of the reservations dealt with the program that we are talking about today," Gonzales said then.
Four Democratic senators sent a letter to Gonzales yesterday asking, "do you stand by your 2006 Senate and House testimony, or do you wish to revise it," prompting the Justice Department's response.