By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy threatened yesterday to request a perjury investigation of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, as Democrats said an intelligence official's statement about a classified surveillance program was at odds with Gonzales's sworn testimony.
The latest dispute involving public remarks by Gonzales concerned the topic of a March 10, 2004, White House briefing for members of Congress. Gonzales, in congressional testimony Tuesday, said the purpose of the briefing was to address what he called "intelligence activities" that were the subject of a legal dispute inside the administration.
Gonzales testified that the meeting was not called to discuss a dispute over the National Security Agency's controversial warrantless surveillance program, which he has repeatedly said attracted no serious controversy inside the administration.
But a letter sent to Congress in May 2006 by then-Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte described the congressional meeting as a "briefing on the Terrorist Surveillance Program," the name that President Bush has publicly used to describe the warrantless surveillance program.
Democrats pointed to the Negroponte letter yesterday in an effort to portray Gonzales's remarks as misleading. They said Gonzales is trying to conceal the existence of a dispute between White House and Justice Department lawyers that involved the surveillance program, which many Democrats have criticized as an illegal or unjustified abuse of executive-branch authority.
Several Democratic lawmakers, including Senate intelligence committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), have also said the meeting focused on the NSA program and have strongly disputed other Gonzales characterizations of the meeting.
Leahy (D-Vt.) told reporters he is giving Gonzales until late next week to revise his testimony about the surveillance program or he will ask Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine to conduct a perjury inquiry: "I'll ask the inspector general to determine who's telling the truth."
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said yesterday that Gonzales "stands by his testimony," and that "the disagreement . . . was not about the particular intelligence activity that has been publicly described by the president. It was about other highly classified intelligence activities."
DNI spokesman Ross Feinstein referred questions to the Justice Department.
The dispute represents the latest political difficulty for Gonzales, who endured a four-hour grilling from Leahy's committee on Tuesday and has been under fire all year for his handling of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year. The panel's members openly attacked Gonzales's credibility on a variety of matters.
Gonzales's troubles with his depiction of the NSA spying program began in February 2006, when he first told the Senate Judiciary panel there was "no serious disagreement" about its legality. But subsequent public remarks by others have suggested that the program -- or activities closely related to it -- were indeed contested.
Former deputy attorney general James B. Comey has testified that he notified the White House that Justice lawyers could not certify the legality of an unidentified classified program -- which lawmakers and other sources have described as the NSA surveillance effort.
The notification provoked a nighttime visit in March 2004 by Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card to the hospital sickbed of then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft at which they tried unsuccessfully to reverse the Justice Department position, according to Comey's account of the incident.
Gonzales has repeatedly stood by his original testimony, in which he said the disagreement was not about "the program that the president has confirmed." A Justice official conceded during a background briefing for reporters this week that Gonzales's "linguistic parsing" has caused some confusion, but said that he spoke accurately.
In June, Gonzales veered briefly from his own account when he said at a news conference that the dispute described by Comey centered on the NSA program. But Roehrkasse told The Washington Post several days later that Gonzales misspoke.
On Tuesday, Gonzales described the March 2004 briefing for eight members of Congress as an "emergency meeting" to discuss the classified legal dispute, and he reiterated that the dispute was not about the NSA surveillance program. Rockefeller and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who were present at the briefing, subsequently told reporters the activities in question were part of the NSA program.
"As far as I'm concerned, there was only one" program, Rockefeller said.
Bush, Gonzales and other administration officials have said the surveillance program allows the NSA to monitor telephone calls and e-mails between people in the United States and overseas in which one target is believed to be linked to al-Qaeda or its affiliates. The program, conducted without judicial involvement for five years, was put under the auspices of a special intelligence court in January.
Asked about the letter from Negroponte that listed the topic of the White House briefing as the surveillance program, a Justice Department official said that Gonzales "did not say that the TSP was not discussed at the meeting," but declined to elaborate.
But Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a critic of Gonzales on the Judiciary panel, said: "It seemed clear to just about everyone on the committee that the attorney general was deceiving us . . . and this letter is even more evidence that helps confirm our suspicions."
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.