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Attorney General Gonzales' Credibility Attacked


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.


NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The hearing was another Gonzales fiasco with Republicans and Democrats alike pummeling the embattled attorney general. Your credibility and your judgment, said ranking Republican Arlen Specter, have been decimated. Your testimony, said Chairman Patrick Leahy, is like "Alice in Wonderland."

PATRICK LEAHY: You come here seeking our trust. Frankly, Mr. Attorney General, you've lost mine.

TOTENBERG: But earlier this year former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified that the entire upper echelon of the department had at one point been prepared to quit over the program and that in 2004 then-White House Counselor Gonzales made an end-run around Comey by going to the bedside of a critically ill Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft, who've turned over temporary control of the department to Comey, refused to overrule his deputy. Yesterday, Gonzales insisted his previous testimony had been accurate and that the Justice Department objections had been to something else.

ALBERTO GONZALES: The disagreement that occurred and the reason for the visit to the hospital, Senator, was about other intelligence activities. It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people.

TOTENBERG: If that is the case, asked Senator Chuck Schumer, why did Gonzales just last month refer to Comey's testimony as being about the warrantless surveillance program?

GONZALES: In the press conference I did misspeak, but I also went back and clarified with a reporter...

CHUCK SCHUMER: What did you say to the reporter?

GONZALES: I did not speak directly to the reporter.

SCHUMER: What did your spokesperson say to the reporter?

GONZALES: I don't know, but...

SCHUMER: Wait a minute, sir.

TOTENBERG: But some congressional leaders flatly contradicted that account, among them Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, one of the Gang of Eight.

JAY ROCKEFELLER: Unidentified Woman: No such conversation or briefing?

ROCKEFELLER: Briefing, statements, nothing. It was not set. He once again is making up something to protect himself and to protect and to create a situation which never happened.

TOTENBERG: So was Gonzales deliberately lying yesterday?

ROCKEFELLER: Based upon what I know about it, I'd have to say yes.

TOTENBERG: Back at the hearing, the senators weren't buying Gonzales' testimony either. Here, for example, is Senator Specter questioning Gonzales about his bedside visit to Attorney General Ashcroft in the intensive care unit.

SPECTER: How can you get approval from Ashcroft for anything when he's under sedation and incapacitated?

GONZALES: There are no rules governing whether or not General Ashcroft can decide I'm feeling well enough to make this decision.

SPECTER: But Attorney General Gonzales, he had already given up his authority as attorney general...

GONZALES: And he could always reclaim that. There are no rules about...

SPECTER: While he's in the hospital under sedation?

GONZALES: Again...

TOTENBERG: Democrat Chuck Schumer had other questions.

SCHUMER: Did the president ask you to go?

GONZALES: We were there on behalf of the president of the United States.

SCHUMER: I didn't ask you that.

GONZALES: I understand...

SCHUMER: Did the president ask you to go?

GONZALES: Senator, we were there on behalf of the president of the United States.

SCHUMER: Why can't you answer that question?

GONZALES: That's the answer that I can give you, Senator.

TOTENBERG: With other senators calling for a further inquiry on Gonzales' truthfulness, Chairman Leahy had this to say.

LEAHY: There's a discrepancy here in sworn testimony, so we're going to have to ask who's telling the truth, who's not.

TOTENBERG: And Republican Specter, glaring at the attorney general, had an ominous message.

SPECTER: So my suggestion to you, that you review your testimony very carefully. The chairman has already said that the committee is going to review your testimony very carefully to see if your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You can hear more back and forth and highlights of yesterday's testimony at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

United States & World Morning Edition
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.