FBI Chief Disputes Gonzales On Spying
Friday, July 27, 2007
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III yesterday contradicted the sworn testimony of his boss, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, by telling Congress that a prominent warrantless surveillance program was the subject of a dramatic legal debate within the Bush administration.
Mueller's testimony appears to mark the first public confirmation from a Bush administration official that the National Security Agency's Terrorist Surveillance Program was at issue in an unusual nighttime visit by Gonzales to the hospital bedside of then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who was under sedation and recovering from surgery.
Mueller's remarks to the House Judiciary Committee differed from testimony earlier in the week from Gonzales, who told a Senate panel that a legal disagreement aired at the hospital did not concern the NSA program. Details of the program, kept secret for four years, were confirmed by President Bush in December 2005, provoking wide controversy on Capitol Hill.
"The discussion was on a national -- an NSA program that has been much discussed, yes," Mueller said in response to a question from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.). Mueller told another lawmaker that he had serious reservations about the warrantless wiretapping program.
His testimony presents a new problem for the beleaguered attorney general, whose credibility has come under attack from Democrats and some Republicans. They say Gonzales deceived them on a number of issues, including the NSA program and events surrounding the firing last year of nine U.S. attorneys.
"He tells the half-truth, the partial truth and anything but the truth," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), as he and three other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee asked the Justice Department yesterday to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether Gonzales lied to Congress about the NSA program.
Complicating the administration's predicament, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) yesterday issued subpoenas to White House adviser Karl Rove and a deputy, demanding their testimony by Thursday as part of the panel's long-running investigation into the prosecutor firings and the alleged politicization of Justice Department career personnel jobs. The White House has refused such requests, prompting House lawmakers to move toward criminal contempt citations against a former Bush legal counsel and his current chief of staff.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said in a statement that Gonzales's testimony and statements about the NSA program have been accurate, but that "confusion is inevitable when complicated classified activities are discussed in a public forum."
Gonzales is under fire in particular for his testimony in February 2006 that there had been no "serious disagreement" about the NSA wiretapping program. Gonzales and his aides have since said that he was referring to the monitoring of international communications confirmed by Bush and not to other, undisclosed "intelligence activities" that attracted controversy within the administration.
"The disagreement that occurred in March 2004 concerned the legal basis for intelligence activities that have not been publicly disclosed and that remain highly classified," Roehrkasse said.
Other officials, including Mueller and several Democratic lawmakers who were briefed on the NSA's activities, have said that the surveillance, or some part of it, was at the heart of the dispute.
Mueller declined at the hearing to discuss Gonzales's statements on the topic. "I really can't comment on what Judge Gonzales was thinking or saying," he said. "I can tell you what I understood at the time."