Credibility Collapse

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"I don't trust you."

"What credibility is left for you?"

SOMETHING IS terribly, terribly wrong when the attorney general of the United States is called to testify under oath before Congress and much of the hearing revolves around his credibility -- or lack thereof. But such was the case yet again during an appearance yesterday by Alberto R. Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The comments quoted above from Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking Republican Arlen Specter (Pa.) reflect the frustration we have come to know all too well when Mr. Gonzales is asked to provide answers to legitimate questions, whether the subject is surveillance programs, interrogation methods for foreign prisoners, the firing of U.S. attorneys -- or even last-minute missions to hospital rooms.

That last topic formed the basis of what can only be described as incredible testimony by Mr. Gonzales yesterday. During the hearing, the attorney general was asked about his March 10, 2004, sojourn to a Washington hospital where then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft was in intensive care because of gall bladder complications. Mr. Ashcroft had temporarily transferred the powers of the attorney general to his deputy, James B. Comey. Mr. Comey had refused to give the department's legal blessing to an intelligence program due to expire the next day. Mr. Gonzales, then the White House counsel, traveled to Mr. Ashcroft's bedside with then-White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr.

"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," Mr. Gonzales testified yesterday. He then described Mr. Ashcroft as "lucid." Mr. Ashcroft ultimately told the two White House visitors that Mr. Comey was the only official legally empowered to make a determination on the matter.

Was Mr. Gonzales, now the top law enforcement official in the country, attempting to circumvent the chain of command? Mr. Comey, who has a reputation as a straight shooter, seems to think so. He testified in May that he believed Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card were attempting "to take advantage of a very sick man."

But it's not just Mr. Comey's word against Mr. Gonzales's when it comes to aspects of this matter. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who was ranking minority member on the Senate intelligence committee in 2004, told The Post's Dan Eggen and William Branigin that he was surprised by Mr. Gonzales's description of a meeting earlier on March 10, 2004, involving top lawmakers on the intelligence committees. Mr. Gonzales testified that there was consensus among lawmakers of both parties that the intelligence program in question should not be allowed to lapse and that Mr. Ashcroft should be informed about that consensus. Mr. Rockefeller told The Post that there was no such agreement. Mr. Gonzales is "once again . . . making something up to protect himself," said Mr. Rockefeller, who is now chairman of the Senate intelligence committee.

At what point does someone lose so much credibility that he should no longer serve in public office? In the case of Mr. Gonzales, we believe that time has come and gone.

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