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.
At a Senate hearing in April, for example, Gonzales said more than 60 times that he could not recall events or facts related to the firings, including a final, high-level meeting in his office at which the dismissal plan was formally approved.
Democrats and some experts on the use of language say that Gonzales's gaffes are too numerous and consistent to be chalked up to misunderstandings. In most instances, his answers, or his refusals to answer, have served to obscure events that would be damaging to the administration, Gonzales or Bush.
One example involves the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which allowed the National Security Agency to monitor telephone calls between the United States and overseas in which one party had been tied to al-Qaeda. Gonzales has testified repeatedly that there was never "serious disagreement" among administration officials about the program and that an unusual visit by Gonzales to the hospital bed of then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft was focused on "other intelligence activities."
But FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III testified last week that the NSA program was the subject of a fierce debate within the administration and was the issue under discussion during the hospital visit.
Gonzales and his aides say the differing accounts boil down to a dispute over terminology: Gonzales was referring only to the surveillance program in the precise form that was confirmed publicly by Bush.
A news account yesterday said that the legal wrangling was about an effort to mine databases for sensitive information, which was linked to the NSA program but not acknowledged by Bush. That suggests that Gonzales's description might have been technically accurate.
But others privy to details of the surveillance activities -- including several lawmakers and Mueller -- have suggested that they were all part of a single NSA program. Gonzales's critics say his distinction was a lawyerly one that stretched the bounds of the truth.
"He's a slippery fellow, and I think so intentionally," said Richard L. Schott, a professor at the University of Texas's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. "He's trying to keep the president's secrets and to be a team player, even if it means prevaricating or forgetting convenient things."
"This almost subconscious bond of loyalty" between the attorney general and the president "may be driving a lot of this," said Schott, who has studied relations between the executive and legislative branches of government and the role of psychology in political behavior. "It's obvious that Gonzales owes Bush his career. Part of his behavior comes from this gratitude and extreme loyalty to Bush."
Bill Minutaglio, a University of Texas journalism professor and author of biographies of Gonzales and Bush, said Gonzales kept an "extremely, extremely low profile" in the three jobs Bush gave him in the Texas government -- general counsel, secretary of state and judge on the Supreme Court -- and had little practice before he came to Washington at responding publicly to stiff scrutiny. "The grilling he's enduring right now is beyond anything he had ever experienced in his life. He was ill prepared for it," Minutaglio said.
Gonzales has irritated congressional Democrats, and a few Republicans, by saying that he is responsible for decisions made within the Justice Department but distancing himself from the process that led to the prosecutor firings. At the April hearing, he said a dozen times that he accepted responsibility. But he also has told Congress that he did not know who placed the names of prosecutors on the firing list, and he has pinned much of the responsibility on his outgoing deputy, Paul J. McNulty, who has said he was only marginally involved.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told Gonzales at the hearing that much of his testimony was "a stretch," and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he was "taken aback" by Gonzales's memory lapses. Last week, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the Judiciary Committee's senior Republican, warned Gonzales to review his remarks, saying: "I do not find your testimony credible, candidly."
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who has written about the confrontational character of dialogue in public life, said Gonzales's responses to grilling by lawmakers are an extreme example of a rhetorical style that many politicians adopt when they get into trouble. Although accepting responsibility, she said, they "very explicitly stop short of, 'I made a mistake. I'm at fault.' "
Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at the New York University School of Law, said that Gonzales's strengths "may lie elsewhere, but they are not in management."
"The idea that nine U.S. attorneys could be fired and the head of the department is only casually in the loop -- it is preposterous that a manager would let that happen." Gillers also said he thinks that Gonzales has exacerbated his problems because "when the inconsistencies are pointed out, he refuses to back down," adding: "He is digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole."
Questions about Gonzales's willingness to shade the truth on Bush's behalf came to prominence in the 1996 episode in which Bush was excused from Texas jury duty in a drunken-driving case. Bush was then the state's governor, and Gonzales was his general counsel. If Bush had served, he probably would have had to disclose his own drunken-driving conviction in Maine two decades earlier.
The judge, prosecutor and defense attorney involved in the case have said that Gonzales met with the judge and argued that jury service would pose a potential conflict of interest for Bush, who could be asked to pardon the defendant. Gonzales has disputed that account. He made no mention of meeting with the judge in a written statement submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.