Support for Attorney General Gonzales slips further

Even among GOP lawmakers on the Hill, concerns mount about the attorney general's truthfulness.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Seldom have a cabinet official and a Congress been so at odds. After months of bickering over fired US attorneys, congressional subpoenas, and secret eavesdropping, embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales now has few supporters left on Capitol Hill, even among his fellow Republicans.

Mr. Gonzales's bitterest foes have gone so far as to call for a special counsel to investigate whether he has perjured himself in congressional testimony. Others have begun pushing for his impeachment.

But it remains unlikely that lawmakers alone will oust the attorney general from office. By all accounts Gonzales retains the support of the person who could fire him in a stroke: President Bush.

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And the most important recent developments in the case may not involve Gonzales himself. In defending him against charges that he lied to Congress last week, administration officials indirectly may have confirmed that the National Security Agency's secret eavesdropping program involves more extensive activities than previously revealed.

"The administration has finally copped to a broader [surveillance] program," wrote Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), in a July 31 analysis of recent developments in the case.

Testimony revives Gonzales's woes

The most recent chapter in this long-running saga began with a July 24 appearance by Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where senators queried him about a 2004 confrontation between administration officials that occurred at the hospital bedside of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Perhaps choosing his words with care, Gonzales said the dispute was not about the National Security Agency's (NSA) secret eavesdropping effort, named the terrorist surveillance program.

However, two days later FBI Director Robert Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee that the confrontation did involve that program.

"The discussion was on a national, an NSA program that has been much discussed, yes," Mr. Mueller told the House panel.

Some Democrats believe that Mueller's admission proved that Gonzales had flat-out lied. Four Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have now called on Solicitor General Paul Clement for a special perjury probe of Gonzales.

But administration officials have insisted that technically Gonzales was telling the truth, as he was talking about the terrorist surveillance program that was publicly confirmed by Mr. Bush in 2005 following news reports of its existence.

"The particular aspect of these activities that the president publicly described was limited to the targeting for interception without a court order of international communications of Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist organizations coming into or going out of the United States," wrote Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell in a July 31 letter to Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Judiciary Committee's ranking minority member. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly named the Director of National Intelligence.]

In other words, administration officials are saying the 2004 bedside dispute was about something other than the basic thrust of the program, something that has yet to be officially disclosed.

Given this defense, it perhaps would be hard to pin a perjury rap on the attorney general, according to some analysts. Perjury cases are hard to prove and can turn on technicalities.

Even so, Democrats say Gonzales clearly meant to mislead the panel. That fits a pattern of obfuscation on the part of the attorney general, they say. During a Senate hearing in April, Gonzales said more than 60 times that he did not recall certain aspects of the firings of US attorneys. Among the things he did not remember was a crucial final meeting on the subject in his office prior to the dismissals, a meeting which other testimony and documents show he did attend.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin said July 26 that he had read the classified record of the program, and that Gonzales's testimony was "misleading at best."

Other secret surveillance programs?

That leaves open the question as to what other aspects of the terrorist surveillance program remain secret.

Reports in The New York Times and elsewhere have said the confrontation may have involved a dispute over "data mining," a practice in which computers perform complicated searches through masses of electronic records, in an attempt to piece together personal relationships or other networks that might reveal the workings of terrorists.

Large-scale data mining has long been controversial in the US, due to its potential for infringement on basic civil liberties. One post-9/11 effort, the Pentagon's Information Awareness Office, had its funds cut off by Congress in 2003 following criticism by the American Civil Liberties Union and others that it went too far.

The publicly admitted outlines of the terrorist surveillance program are "only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the NSA's spying on the American public," writes Ms. Cohn.

Despite opposition from EFF and other watchdog groups, Congress on Aug. 1 appeared close to updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to make it easier for the NSA to eavesdrop without a warrant on terror suspects overseas.

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