Rove blamed for Attorney firings in Gonzales hearing; Specter raises prospect of impeachment
Senator Patrick Leahy kicked off an oversight hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales by accusing top White House adviser Karl Rove of playing a key role in the firing of 8 US Attorneys.
"The accumulated and essentially uncontroverted evidence is that political considerations factored into the unprecedented firing of at least nine United States Attorneys last year," the committee's chairman said. "The evidence we have been able to collect points to Karl Rove and the political operatives at the White House. ."
Leahy also described a Justice Department in a state of 'crisis.' He worried that most of the senior leadership in the department had resigned.
"I would joke that the last one out the door should turn off the lights, but the Department of Justice is more important than that," he stated. "We need to shine more light on the Justice Department, not less"
The Vermont Democrat went on to criticize Gonzales for failing to be forthcoming with information about the Federal Bureau of Investigation's use of National Security Letters and said it pointed to an inability to trust Gonzales and the Bush administration.
"With a history of civil liberty abuses and cover ups, this administration has squandered our trust," he warned.
Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), the ranking Republican on the committee, also said that Gonzales' acceptance of responsibility was not sufficient.
"That is not enough," he said. "The question is whether or not the Department of Justice is functioning as it must."
Specter criticized Gonzales for failing to give a clear explanation for why the prosecutors were fired. He also slammed the White House for lacking flexibility in preparing oversight.
"Now we have a very remarkable turn of events: we now have the announcement that the administration will preclude the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia from bringing a contempt citation," he said. "The president in that manner can stymie Congressional oversight...if that is to happen, the president can run the government as he chooses."
Specter then suggested the possibility of appointing a special prosecutor because he said the President had a conflict of interest. He went on to also offer the alternative that the Senate could try a contempt charge of its own, or consider the model of the impeachment of Alcee Hastings, a former federal judge who now serves as a Democratic Congressman from Florida.
Attorney General downplays FBI privacy violations
Gonzales focused his opening statement on questions relating to the PATRIOT Act and the government's Terrorist Surveillance Program. He emphasized the need to modernize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
"This situation is unacceptable — we must quickly reform FISA’s outdated legal framework and ensure that the Intelligence Community is able to gather the information it needs to protect the Nation," Gonzales argued in his prepared opening remarks.
The Attorney General did not focus his remarks on the US Attorneys controversy, which he only discussed in his prepared testimony.
Senator Leahy then raised the 500 complaints to the Intelligence Oversight Board relating to National Security Letters used by the FBI to request wiretaps, and the subsequent lack of follow up. Gonzales defended the oversight procedures used to monitor the system and ensure that civil liberties are not violated.
"A violation of IOB may not be a violation of the PATRIOT Act," Gonzales insisted. "We're talking about intentional, deliberate misuse of the PATRIOT Act, not when some agent writes down the wrong phone number in a National Security Letter."
Senator Leahy challenged him on what 'appropriate actions' had been taken in response to PATRIOT Act violations. The Attorney General's answer was vague.
"We institute training...or disciplinary action against the agent," he responded.
Specter lambastes Gonzales on executive power
Senator Specter then engaged in a testy series of exchanges with the Attorney General.
First, he brought up the visit of Gonzales as White House Counsel to the hospital bed of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004. The White House wanted Ashcroft to overrule a decision by James Comey, then serving as acting Attorney General, that an intelligence program was not legal. Gonzales insisted that the program being discussed in the hospital room meeting was not the administration's domestic wiretapping program.
"The visit to the hospital was about other intelligence activities. It was not about the Terrorist Surveillance Program," he said.
"Mr. Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?" Specter quipped back.
Gonzales demurred, but then defended the effort to ask Ashcroft to overrule Comey, who was serving as head of the Justice Department while the Attorney General was recovering from surgery.
"There are no rules governing whether or not Attorney General Ashcroft can decide 'I'm feeling well enough to make this decision,'" he insisted.
Specter answered Gonzales angrily.
"Attorney General Gonzales, he had already given up his authority as Attorney General," the Pennsylvania Republican scolded, adding that Ashcroft was under sedation as Gonzales insisted that Ashcroft could reclaim his authority whenever he wanted.
"You're not making any progress here," Specter quipped.
Specter then angrily asked if the White House's current assertions of executive privilege threatened the current form of government in the United States.
"Do you think constitutional government in the United States can survive if the president has the unilateral authority to reject congressional inquiries on grounds of executive privilege, and the president then acts to bar the Congress from getting the judicial determination as to whether that executive privilege is properly invoked?" Specter queried.
Gonzales then attempted to insist that his recusal from decision-making related to the US Attorneys investigation prevented him from answering.
The response seemed to make Specter angrier.
"I'm not asking you a question about something your recused of. I'm asking you a question about Constitutional Law," he fired back.
Specter then went on, "I'm not going to pursue that question because I see that it's hopeless."