By Michael Abramowitz and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 2, 2007
The Bush administration pushed back against congressional Democrats on two fronts yesterday, as the White House formally directed senior adviser Karl Rove not to cooperate with a Senate probe into the firing of U.S. attorneys and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales declined to alter testimony that some senators have described as misleading.
The actions seemed certain to heighten the confrontation between Congress and the administration over a pair of investigations, one looking into whether politics tainted the removal of nine senior federal prosecutors, the other involving the legality of a surveillance program operated by the National Security Agency.
As expected, the White House invoked executive privilege in declining to allow Rove and one of his aides, J. Scott Jennings, to provide documents or testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is exploring Rove's role in the firing of U.S. attorneys.
White House counsel Fred F. Fielding wrote to the committee that the decision was rooted in the president's determination to protect "the ability of future Presidents to ensure that the Executive's decisions reflect and benefit from the candid exchange of informed and diverse viewpoints." Fielding provided the Judiciary Committee an opinion from the Justice Department that Rove, as an immediate presidential adviser, is "immune from compelled congressional testimony about matters that arose during his tenure and that relate to his official duties in that capacity."
He made no such claim for Jennings, and the committee said it expects Jennings to appear at 10 a.m. today. But Fielding's letter makes clear that the aide will decline to answer questions about the U.S. attorney matter, although he could be asked about other matters.
Meanwhile, Gonzales sought to clear up questions about his credibility stemming from his testimony on the NSA's warrantless surveillance program. He acknowledged that his previous testimony to the committee may have been confusing but said there was no intent to mislead and declined to change his testimony.
"I am deeply concerned with suggestions that my testimony was misleading, and am determined to address any such impression" he said in a letter to Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Arlen Specter (Pa.) the ranking Republican.
In the letter, Gonzales confirms that there was "serious disagreement" within the Justice Department about the NSA activities that were ordered by President Bush in late 2001. But as he has testified before, Gonzales also said there was no such disagreement about the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program.
The letter acknowledges, however, that even that part of the NSA's activities -- later known as the Terrorist Surveillance Program -- prompted "intense deliberations" within the Justice Department in 2004. Gonzales acknowledged that his previous statements "may have created confusion," especially for lawmakers and others who refer to all the activities as "a single NSA 'program.' "
The two-page letter, which includes a greater degree of detail than Gonzales had previously offered on the subject, appears aimed at heading off calls by some Democrats for a perjury investigation into parts of his previous testimony.
Leahy was not mollified by what he called a "legalistic explanation" by Gonzales and said the attorney general has until tomorrow "to correct and supplement his testimony." He said in a statement: "It is time for full candor to enforce the law and promote justice, rather than word parsing."
Leahy also sharply criticized the White House for refusing to allow Rove to appear, asking, "Why is the White House working so hard to hide Karl Rove's involvement?"
Fielding said he regretted that the Judiciary Committee had not availed itself of President Bush's offer to make officials available as long as they would not be under oath and no transcript would be made.