Short of Perjury

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Capitol Hill last week.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Capitol Hill last week. (By Joshua Roberts -- Getty Images)
By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I find myself in an unaccustomed and unexpected position: defending Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Gonzales fans, if there are Gonzales fans left, except for the only fan who counts: Don't take any comfort from my assessment.

In his Senate testimony last week, Gonzales once again dissembled and misled. He was too clever by seven-eighths. He employed his signature brand of inartful dodging -- linguistic evasion, poorly executed. The brutalizing he received from senators of both parties was abundantly deserved.

But I don't think he actually lied about his March 2004 hospital encounter with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. I certainly don't think he could be charged with -- much less convicted of -- perjury.

Go back to December 2005, when the New York Times reported on a secret program of warrantless wiretapping. President Bush acknowledged an effort "to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al-Qaeda and related terrorist organizations."

Soon, the first stories about the hospital visit appeared.

In a Jan. 1, 2006, article, the Times reported then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey's refusal to approve continuation of the surveillance program and described "an emergency visit" to Ashcroft's hospital room by Gonzales and Andrew Card, then White House counsel and chief of staff, respectively.

Similarly, Newsweek reported how the White House aides "visited Ashcroft in the hospital to appeal Comey's refusal. In pain and on medication, Ashcroft stood by his No. 2."

It was in this context -- senators knew about the hospital visit well before Comey's riveting description in May -- that Gonzales appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in February 2006.

Asked about those reports, he said that "with respect to what the president has confirmed, I do not believe that these DOJ officials that you were identifying had concerns about this program." The disagreements, he said, "dealt with operational capabilities that we're not talking about today."

Flash-forward to last week, when Gonzales once again said: "The disagreement that occurred and the reason for the visit to the hospital . . . was about other intelligence activities. It was not about the Terrorist Surveillance Program that the president announced to the American people."

The emphasis is mine, and it matters. We know, from Comey's account, that the dispute was intense. We don't know precisely what the disagreement was about -- and it makes sense that we don't know: This was a classified program, and all the officials, current and former, who have testified about it have been deliberately and appropriately vague.

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