The Weight of His Words

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's own words were a potent factor in his downfall. Here are some of the key statements he made -- about the unorthodox firings of U.S. attorneys and the administration's surveillance practices -- that damaged his credibility and eroded his support in Congress among both Democrats and Republicans. - Amy Goldstein

“There have been no verified civil liberties abuses in the four years of the act’s existence.”
— Dec. 15, 2005, op-ed piece by Gonzales, urging Congress to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act.
Internal FBI documents, released this summer, made clear that Gonzales had been informed of at least a half-dozen instances of legal or procedural violations of the Patriot Act. They included unauthorized surveillance, an illegal property search and a case in which an Internet firm improperly turned over a compact disc containing data that the FBI was not entitled to collect.
“There has not been any serious disagreement, including — and I think this is accurate — there’s not been any serious disagreement about the program that the president has confirmed.”
— Feb. 6, 2006, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency.
In May 2007 testimony as riveting as a novel, Gonzales’s former deputy, James B. Comey, disclosed that he and several colleagues had concluded that the program was illegal, and that a half-dozen or so officials at Justice and the FBI were ready to resign unless it was altered. Comey also described a nighttime showdown over the program in March 2004 between then-White House counsel Gonzales and then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft in the hospital room where Ashcroft was recuperating from gallbladder surgery. Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. tried in the visit to persuade Ashcroft to certify that the program was legal, but Ashcroft refused.
“We never had any intent to ask anything of him if we did not feel that he was competent. When we got there, I will just say that Mr. Ashcroft did most of the talking. . . . Mr. Ashcroft talked about the legal issues in a lucid form, as I’ve heard him talk about legal issues in the White House.”
— July 24, 2007, Senate testimony about the visit to Ashcroft’s hospital room.
Typewritten notes by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, based on his own meeting at the hospital with Ashcroft after Gonzales and Card departed, described the then-attorney general in far worse shape: “AG in chair; is feeble, barely articulate, clearly stressed.”
“I have not been involved, was not involved in the deliberations over whether or not U.S. attorneys should resign.”
— March 26, 2007, interview on “NBC Nighly News.”
Three days later, Gonzales’s former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, testified that he had conferred with his boss at least five times about the plan to remove federal prosecutors and that Gonzales had attended a final meeting on the topic less than two weeks before seven were fired on a single day last December.
“I haven’t talked to witnesses because of the fact that I haven’t wanted to interfere with this investigation and department investigations.”
— April 19, 2007, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the dismissal last year of nine U.S. attorneys.
Five weeks later, Gonzales’s former senior counselor, Monica M. Goodling, startled Congress with an account of her final conversation with her boss in early April, just before she resigned. Goodling testified: “He laid out for me his general recollection” of the “process regarding the replacement of the U.S. attorneys . . . and then he asked me if he thought — if I had any reaction to his iteration. . . . I did not know if it was appropriate for us to both be discussing our recollections of what had happened. And I just thought maybe we shouldn’t have that conversation, and so I didn’t respond — so I didn’t respond to what he said.”
“I don’t recall — I don’t recall exactly when the decision — I made the decision.”
— April 19 Senate Judiciary hearing on the firings, at which Gonzales said nearly 70 times that he did not know, could not recall or was unsure about various information.
Even committee Republicans were flabbergasted. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), normally a reliable ally of the Bush administration, told Gonzales that day, “Mr. Attorney General, most of this is a stretch.” And Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the panel’s ranking Republican, said: “It doesn’t do any good to ask any more questions, because I think we’ve gone about as far as we can go. . . . We haven’t gotten really answers.”