The testimony before Congress, or the lack thereof, by various Bush administration officials is beginning to seem a mockery of the concept of “congressional oversight.” Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee issued contempt citations for Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten. Alberto Gonzales, meanwhile, actually appeared before the Senate Judiciary, but it’s unclear if his testimony was more meaningful than any testimony at all. Perhaps Gonzales should have just taken Miers’s and Bolten’s lead and stayed home.
Media outlets have caught on to a serious discrepancy between Gonzales’ testimony and information provided by documents from the National Intelligence Director’s office. The major issue discussed at the hearing yesterday concerned a visit Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andy Card made in 2004 to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft as he rested at George Washington University Hospital in downtown Washington, D.C., recovering from gallbladder surgery. Earlier in the night, Gonzales and Card had met with congressional leaders about an unspecified program and claimed to have gotten a consensus for renewing it. But when they spoke with Ashcroft, he deferred to Jim Comey, the Deputy Attorney General to whom Ashcroft had handed power while he recovered. Comey, who later testified that he thought Gonzales and Card had tried to take advantage of a sick Ashcroft, was opposed to the program.
The question, however, concerns which program was discussed that night in 2004. Gonzales claimed that it was an unnamed, highly classified intelligence program that was not the “Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP),” an initiative that allowed the government to eavesdrop on suspects in the US without oversight. But documents unearthed by the AP directly contradict Gonzales’ testimony:
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 . . .
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.
Either the NID documents are in error, or Gonzales has been caught in yet another perjury before the committee. All this is not to mention the fact that Gonzales sought out the ailing attorney general in his hospital room, a tactless move that does seem to match Comey’s description of the events as an attempt to take advantage of Ashcroft. But where does Gonzales’ credibility now stand?
Of all government officials, the Attorney General should know best the importance of oversight within the government, the seriousness of perjury, and the consequences of misleading Congress. As the chief legal officer of the United States, he is charged with maintaining law and order in the land. But Gonzales–“Fredo”–holds his loyalty to the Executive dearer than his fidelity to his duties as a lawyer and his responsibilities to the American people. When things are so topsy-turvy at the top, accountability is the way to right the system. If the charges against Gonzales are substantiated, more contempt citations should be on the way.