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Senate Democrats Arrange Perjury Charges for Gonzales

July 26, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Next, that battle between Senate Democrats and the attorney general. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), New York: We’re here at a sad moment.

KWAME HOLMAN: The four Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who requested a special prosecutor today to investigate Attorney General Alberto Gonzales accused him of giving “half-truths and misleading statements” in congressional testimony.

The request followed a combative hearing Tuesday, in which members of both parties questioned the attorney general’s competence and his honesty on a range of issues. New York’s Chuck Schumer outlined the rationale behind the request.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: We simply cannot stand for this any longer. The attorney general is meant to be the chief law enforcement officer of the land. He must be a person of truth and candor and integrity. The record, which grows day by day, is making it clear that the attorney general is not such a person.

KWAME HOLMAN: The senators questioned Gonzales’ accounts of his involvement in the firings of U.S. attorneys and statements about the president’s domestic surveillance program. In addition to Schumer, Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold, California’s Dianne Feinstein, and Rhode Island freshman Sheldon Whitehouse requested the probe.

The committee’s chairman, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, did not sign on to the effort. They wrote a letter to Solicitor General Paul Clement, who handles matters from which the attorney general has recused himself. Senator Dianne Feinstein listed the issues the senators want investigated.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), California: One, to look at whether, in fact, the department has been politicized; two, to evaluate his misleading and often untrue statements to the Congress…

Gonzales contradicted by Comey

KWAME HOLMAN: Driving today's request was the testimony Gonzales gave Tuesday about a domestic surveillance program the president has acknowledged. In previous testimony, Gonzales said there had not been dissent in his department about undertaking that program.

But Democrats say that was directly contradicted during dramatic testimony given in May by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey. He told the committee top Justice Department officials were prepared to resign over a classified intelligence program he would not describe. He also said Gonzales, who then was White House counsel, and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card pressured then-Attorney General John Ashcroft -- who was hospitalized in intensive care -- to reauthorize that program. Both Comey and Ashcroft refused.

JAMES COMEY, Former Acting Attorney General: Mr. Gonzales began to discuss why they were there, to seek his approval for a matter.

KWAME HOLMAN: Comey was acting attorney general at the time; Ashcroft had temporarily transferred decisionmaking authority to him. On Tuesday, Gonzales insisted Comey's and Ashcroft's opposition was to a separate intelligence program, not the one acknowledged by the president. Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter was very skeptical.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: Mr. Attorney General, what credibility is left for you when you say there's no disagreement and you're a party to going to the hospital to see Attorney General Ashcroft under sedation to try to get him to approve the program?

ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. Attorney General: 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. Now, I would like the opportunity...

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?

Mueller talks about his involvement

KWAME HOLMAN: Today at a House oversight hearing, FBI Director Robert Mueller talked about his involvement on the day of the hospital visit.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI Director: I don't dispute what Mr. Comey said, in terms of receiving a call requesting my going to the hospital and alerting persons that Mr. Comey wanted to be present during any conversations that were had with the attorney general.

The discussion was on a NSA program that has been much discussed, yes.

KWAME HOLMAN: Gonzales also testified Tuesday that just before the hospital visit he participated in a White House meeting with the so-called "Gang of Eight," the House and Senate leadership and chairs of the Intelligence Committees. He said there was consensus at that meeting in favor of the secret intelligence program, but Democrats who attended that meeting have disputed that claim.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I think that Senator Schumer has made a practice of politicizing this matter.

Specter criticizes Democrats

KWAME HOLMAN: Today Senator Specter, despite his incredulous reaction to the attorney general's testimony on Tuesday, blasted the four Democrats requesting the probe.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I think there's a little bit of Don Quixote here. People are riding off in all different directions at once. Everybody's trying to top everybody else, and they're reaching for the front pages.

KWAME HOLMAN: Specter, however, said he supports Chairman Leahy's request that the attorney general review the transcript of his Tuesday testimony and correct it if he wishes. A Justice Department spokesman has said the attorney general stands by his testimony.