Attorney general acknowledges lack of candor with Congress

Under intensive grilling from a skeptical Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales conceded Tuesday he had not always met a high standard of candor in responding to Congress' questions about White House intelligence policies and the abrupt firing of nine U.S. attorneys.

But he insisted he had tried to subsequently correct any misstatements. Yet Gonzales continued to spar verbally with senators Tuesday and "recused" himself from answering some questions partly because of ongoing internal Justice Department investigations about the U.S. attorney dismissals.

Gonzales had barely seated himself before Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., laced into him and the Bush administration for a "crisis of leadership" stemming from his leadership of the department.

"The attorney general has lost the confidence of the Congress and the American people," said Leahy, who added that the department under Gonzales had misled Congress repeatedly and then implored lawmakers to "trust us. With a history of civil liberties abuses and coverups, this administration has squandered our trust. I'm not willing to accept a simple statement of 'Trust us.' I don't trust you."

Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., accused Gonzales of "misleading Congress again and again" and suggested he had not met a high standard of truthfulness in previous testimony. "Obviously, I've not always met that standard," Gonzales said.

Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter, R-Pa., charged that a series of missteps during Gonzales' watch had contributed to "low morale, a lack of credibility, including your personal credibility. The department is dysfunctional." Specter was particularly critical of the White House's refusal to produce high-level witnesses, under the rubric of executive privilege, in its inquiry of the U.S. attorneys' firings.

Other senators repeatedly assailed Gonzales for what they called discrepancies in his varying accounts of whether there were serious objections, within the department itself, over President Bush's decision to authorize warrantless wiretaps of U.S. citizens without prior approval by a special court to vet such activities.

Senators also charged that the attorney general had misled them in professing not to know about multiple violations of the PATRIOT Act's procedures for abusive use of National Security Letters. Other testimony over the past few months by lower-ranking Justice officials and ex-officials indicate that a furious debate ensued over the legality of the president's order.

That included former Deputy Attorney General James Comey's testimony that he had to personally intervene in a visit to the hospital by Gonzales, then White House counsel, and another presidential aide to try to persuade ailing former Attorney General John Ashcroft to reauthorize the then-expiring surveillance program. Ashcroft declined to do so.

Gonzales said the urgency of the visit was necessitated by the impending expiration of the wiretap program, and that he had met with key members, in both parties, of Congress beforehand to explain the need to continue it, after Comey refused.

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