WASHINGTON — Documents indicate eight congressional leaders were briefed about the Bush administration’s terrorist surveillance program on the eve of its expiration in 2004, contradicting sworn Senate testimony this week by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The documents underscore questions about Gonzales’ credibility as senators consider whether a perjury investigation should be opened into conflicting accounts about the program and a dramatic March 2004 confrontation leading up to its potentially illegal reauthorization.
A Gonzales spokesman maintained Wednesday that the attorney general stands by his testimony.
At a heated Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Gonzales repeatedly testified that the issue at hand was not about the terrorist surveillance program, which allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on suspects in the United States without receiving court approval.
Instead, Gonzales said, the emergency meetings on March 10, 2004, focused on an intelligence program that he would not describe.
Testimony in question
Gonzales, who was then serving as counsel to Bush, testified that the White House Situation Room briefing sought to inform congressional leaders about the pending expiration of the unidentified program and Justice Department objections to renew it. Those objections were led by then-Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey, who questioned the program’s legality.
“The dissent related to other intelligence activities,” Gonzales testified at Tuesday’s hearing. “The dissent was not about the terrorist surveillance program.”
“Not the TSP?” responded Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “Come on. If you say it’s about other, that implies not. Now say it or not.”
“It was not,” Gonzales answered. “It was about other intelligence activities.”
A four-page memo from the national intelligence director’s office says the White House briefing with the eight lawmakers on March 10, 2004, was about the terror surveillance program, or TSP.
The memo, dated May 17, 2006, and addressed to then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, details “the classification of the dates, locations, and names of members of Congress who attended briefings on the Terrorist Surveillance Program,” wrote then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte.
It shows that the briefing in March 2004 was attended by the Republican and Democratic House and Senate leaders and leading members of both chambers’ intelligence committees, as Gonzales testified.
Gonzales 'stands by his testimony'
Schumer called the memo evidence that Gonzales was not truthful in his testimony.
“It seemed clear to just about everyone on the committee that the attorney general was deceiving us when he said the dissent was about other intelligence activities and this memo is even more evidence that helps confirm our suspicions,” Schumer said.
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Bush acknowledged the existence of the classified surveillance program in December 2005 after it was revealed by The New York Times. In January, it was put under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for judicial review before any wiretaps were to be approved.
Asked for comment on the documents Wednesday evening, Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Gonzales “stands by his testimony.”
“The disagreement referenced by Jim Comey in March 2004 was not about the particular intelligence activity that has been publicly described by the president,” Roehrkasse said. “It was about other highly classified intelligence activities that have been briefed to the intelligence committees.”
The disagreement over whether to renew the program led to a dramatic, and highly controversial, confrontation between Gonzales and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft on the night of March 10, 2004.
After briefing the congressional leaders, Gonzales testified that he and then-White House chief of staff Andy Card headed to a Washington hospital room, where a sedated Ashcroft was recovering from surgery. Ashcroft had already turned over his powers as attorney general to Comey.
Comey was in the hospital room as well, and recounted to senators in his own sworn testimony in May that he “thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man, who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me.”
Ultimately, Ashcroft sided with Comey, and Gonzales and Card left the hospital after a five- to six-minute conversation.
Gonzales denied that he and Card tried to pressure Ashcroft into approving the program over Comey’s objections.
“We never had any intent to ask anything of him if we did not feel that he was competent,” Gonzales told the Senate panel Tuesday. “At the end of his description of the legal issues, he said, ’I’m not making this decision. The deputy attorney general is.’ And so Andy Card and I thanked him. We told him that we would continue working with the deputy attorney general and we left.”
Democrats and Republicans alike expressed disbelief at Gonzales’ version of events.
“There’s a discrepancy here in sworn testimony,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said after listening to Gonzales, raising the possibility of a perjury inquiry. “We’re going to have to ask who’s telling the truth, who’s not.”
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, top Republican on the panel, also disregarded Gonzales’ description. “I do not find your testimony credible, candidly,” he told the attorney general.
House and Senate lawmakers who attended the Situation Room briefing are divided on the accuracy of Gonzales’ account of that meeting, which he said concluded by a “consensus in the room from the congressional leadership is that we should continue the activities, at least for now, despite the objections of Mr. Comey.”
Three Democrats — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller and former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle — dispute Gonzales’ testimony. Rockefeller called it “untruthful,” and Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said the speaker disagreed that it should be continued without Justice Department or FISA court oversight.
On the other hand, former GOP House Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss, “does not recall anyone saying the project must be ended,’ spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise Dyck said. And former Senate Republican leader Bill Frist stopped short of confirming or denying the meeting’s outcome.
“I recall being briefed with the others about the program and it was stated that Gonzales would visit with Ashcroft in the hospital and that our meeting was part of the administration’s responsibility to discuss with the leadership of Congress,’ Frist said in a statement.
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