Gonzales's Truthfulness Long Disputed

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By Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 30, 2007

When Alberto R. Gonzales was asked during his January 2005 confirmation hearing whether the Bush administration would ever allow wiretapping of U.S. citizens without warrants, he initially dismissed the query as a "hypothetical situation."

But when Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) pressed him further, Gonzales declared: "It is not the policy or the agenda of this president to authorize actions that would be in contravention of our criminal statutes."

By then, however, the government had been conducting a secret wiretapping program for more than three years without court oversight, possibly in conflict with federal intelligence laws. Gonzales had personally defended the effort in fierce internal debates. Feingold later called his testimony that day "misleading and deeply troubling."

The accusation that Gonzales has been deceptive in his public remarks has erupted this summer into a full-blown political crisis for the Bush administration, as the beleaguered attorney general struggles repeatedly to explain to Congress the removal of a batch of U.S. attorneys, the wiretapping program and other actions.

In each case, Gonzales has appeared to lawmakers to be shielding uncomfortable facts about the Bush administration's conduct on sensitive matters. A series of misstatements and omissions has come to define his tenure at the helm of the Justice Department and is the central reason that lawmakers in both parties have been trying for months to push him out of his job.

Yet controversy over Gonzales's candor about George W. Bush's conduct or policies has actually dogged him for more than a decade, since he worked for Bush in Texas.

Whether Gonzales has deliberately told untruths or is merely hampered by his memory has been the subject of intense debate among members of Congress, legal scholars and others who have watched him over the years. Some regard his verbal difficulties as a strategic ploy on behalf of a president to whom he owes his career; others see a public official overwhelmed by the magnitude of his responsibilities.

Administration officials say Gonzales's enemies are distorting his words for political gain. The Justice Department has portrayed the criticism as unavoidable and a matter of routine misunderstanding, provoked by the attorney general's presence at a "friction point between the executive branch and Congress when it comes to national security policy," as spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Friday.

Gonzales told senators earlier this year that allegations that he had been untruthful "have been personally very painful to me." But Gonzales's critics on and off Capitol Hill say he has had trouble with the truth for more than a decade, pointing to a controversy over Gonzales's account of why Bush was excused from jury duty in 1996 while serving as the governor of Texas.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who joined other Democrats last week in calling for an inquiry into possible perjury by Gonzales, said Friday that "most public servants -- Democratic or Republican, conservative, moderate or liberal -- seem to want to try to tell the truth. . . . With Gonzales, whatever answer fits he will tell, whether it's true or not. It almost seems pathological."

Over the past 2 1/2 years, lawmakers have accused Gonzales of dissembling on many topics, including civil liberties abuses under the USA Patriot Act and his role in reviewing aggressive interrogation tactics. After a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in February 2006, Gonzales sent the panel a six-page, single-spaced letter to "clarify" six major points of testimony, including his erroneous claim that the Justice Department had never undertaken a legal analysis of domestic wiretapping.

But scrutiny of Gonzales increased dramatically this year as a result of Democrats' aggressive investigations into the Justice Department's firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. Gonzales has particularly come under fire for his shifting explanations of his role in the dismissals and for his statements that he could not recall a host of details about the firings.


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