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Why does Alberto Gonzales still have a job?

August 3, 2007 | Page 16

NICOLE COLSON reports on the rising tide of people who say the attorney general is a liar.

HOW DO you know when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is lying?

His lips move.

Now, Gonzales' lies are turning into a full-blown political crisis for the Bush administration. After a dismal performance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in late July, Gonzales could face perjury charges.

At issue is his testimony that there had never been any disagreements inside the Bush administration over the legality of the National Security Agency's (NSA) "Terrorist Surveillance Program"--a misnamed program that greatly broadened the government's domestic wiretapping powers against U.S. citizens.

In front of the committee, the perpetually scandal-embroiled Gonzales--already on the hot seat for his role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys as political payback--faced one hostile accusation after another.

"I just don't trust you," Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy told Gonzales. "You're deceiving us," charged fellow Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer.

That's a far cry from two years ago, when, during his confirmation hearings, few Democrats bothered to challenge Gonzales on his record of justifying the torture of detainees in U.S. military prisons. At the time, Sen. Joe Biden joked, "I love you, but you're not very candid so far," to laughter in the gallery.

No one's laughing now--not with even Republicans going after Gonzales.

Sen. Lindsey Graham told Gonzales at his recent hearings that much of his testimony was "a stretch," and Sen. Jeff Sessions said he was "taken aback" by Gonzales' memory lapses.

The committee's ranking Republican, Arlen Specter, went even further, telling Gonzales, "Your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable."

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THE LATEST round of trouble for Gonzales stems from a confrontation in March 2004 with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft as Ashcroft lay in a hospital bed, recovering from emergency surgery.

Though Gonzales denies it, FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Deputy Attorney General James Comey have testified that the Justice Department had refused to endorse a continuation of the administration's domestic wiretapping program because it was illegal. Unwilling to accept that, Dick Cheney allegedly sent then-White House Counsel Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card to the hospital room of a groggy Ashcroft to strong-arm him into signing off on the program.

Comey--who had temporarily taken over as head of the Justice Department--and Mueller say they intercepted the White House delegation, and witnessed Ashcroft refuse to sign off on the wiretapping and tell Card and Gonzales to leave.

According to Comey, the White House later modified the eavesdropping program enough for the Justice Department to sign off on it--after several top-ranking Justice Department officials, including Ashcroft, threatened to resign.

For his part, Gonzales told the Judiciary Committee that there was never "serious disagreement" about the Terrorist Surveillance Program. He claims that his visit to Ashcroft's hospital bed was related to "other intelligence activities."

The meeting stands out as particularly outrageous given that Ashcroft was hardly a champion of civil liberties. During his time as attorney general, he oversaw any number of attacks on our rights--including implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act, which included expanded government power for secret searches; monitoring of e-mail and other private communications; more detentions; and labeling legitimate protest as "terrorist."

Gonzales' attempt to coerce Ashcroft shows how ruthless the administration has been in shredding civil liberties.

Some reports now suggest that Gonzales' denials were based on a possible "technicality"--that the legal wrangling at Ashcroft's bedside may have been about a different database-mining program linked to the larger NSA program, but not acknowledged by the Bush administration.

However, even if that's the case, as the Washington Post noted, the "distinction was a lawyerly one that stretched the bounds of the truth."

Unsurprisingly, the Bush administration is standing behind Gonzales--one of George Bush's most trusted advisers. According to White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino, the Democrats are at fault for asking Gonzales questions about "sensitive" administration programs--like the illegal trampling of civil liberties--in the first place.

"I think that when the committee relentlessly asked questions about a subject that they know that he is going to have difficulty answering because he has one hand tied behind his back, that they...have deliberately had this crusade against him to try to destroy the attorney general," Perino told reporters.

Some Senate Democrats are asking for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate whether Gonzales committed perjury. The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, issued a subpoena to White House adviser Karl Rove and presidential aide J. Scott Jennings to compel their testimony about the dismissal of the federal prosecutors.

Gonzales deserves to go down for any number of reasons--from his approval and justification of torture to his shredding of civil liberties here at home. The current scandals plaguing him are much larger than whether or not he lied in any specific instance.

As Salon's Glenn Greenwald commented, "The NSA scandal is not now and never has been about perjury. It is about highly illegal spying activities by our government on American citizens.

"The scandal arose because the Bush administration spied on Americans illegally for many years and concealed its criminality. It did so (a) by eavesdropping on the telephone calls of Americans without warrants...and (b) by engaging in the even worse, though still unknown, spying activities which caused Ashcroft, Comey, Mueller et al to threaten to quit if it did not cease...

"What was the administration doing prior to 2004 that was so illegal that the entire top level of the [Justice Department] threatened to quit over it?"

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