WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats escalated their investigations of the Justice Department on Thursday, subpoenaing President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, and seeking the appointment of a special counsel to consider whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has committed perjury.
The latest steps are an effort to pressure President Bush to drop claims of executive privilege in a congressional investigation into last year's firings of nine U.S. attorneys. They also aim to pressure Gonzales to resign and to force the disclosure of more details about a controversial domestic-surveillance program.
Neither challenge is expected to deliver immediate results, and Republicans called the moves political posturing. White House spokesman Tony Fratto accused the Democrats of pursuing a political vendetta while allowing spending, energy and terrorism legislation to languish.
"Every day this Congress gets a little more out of control: a new call for a special prosecutor, a new investigation launched, a new subpoena issued, an unprecedented contempt vote, and an old score somehow settled," Fratto said.
The controversy deepened, however, when FBI Director Robert Mueller, testifying before a House of Representatives panel, appeared to contradict Gonzales' testimony Tuesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Gonzales had maintained that emergency meetings in March 2004, including one in then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's hospital room, weren't about what was known as the terrorist surveillance program but concerned another intelligence program he declined to identify. But Mueller said the hospital-room meeting involved "a national NSA program that has been much discussed, yes." NSA refers to the National Security Agency, which conducted the classified surveillance program.
The Justice Department said Gonzales stood behind his testimony.
Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice spokesman,said Gonzales had testified that department officials didn't disagree overthe legality ofthe surveillance program but over another secret program that hadn't been publicly identified.
"That statement was accurate," Roehrkasse said in a statement."The disagreement that occurred in March 2004 concerned the legal basis for intelligence activities that have not been publicly disclosed and that remain highly classified."
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow called the surveillance program controversy "a very complex issue" and said Gonzales "was speaking consistently. The president supports him. I think at some point this is going to be something where members are going to have to go behind closed doors and have a fuller discussion of the issues. But I can't go any further than that."
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary panel and a critic of Gonzales, said calling for a special prosecutor was "precipitous" but "a great fundraising device for the Democratic Party."
Specter said the Rove subpoena was a legitimate bargaining tool, but predicted: "We're not going to find out anything by seeking to enforce these subpoenas."
Congress can't launch a special counsel's investigation on its own. That decision typically would be the attorney general's, although in this case Gonzales would have a conflict of interest. So four Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote to Solicitor General Paul D. Clement asking him to appoint a special counsel outside the Justice Department.
"It has become apparent that the attorney general has provided — at a minimum — half-truths and misleading statements" said the letter from Sens. Charles Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
Clement referred calls to the Justice Department. Legal experts and lawmakers alike predicted he wouldn't name a special prosecutor.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has encouraged Gonzales to review and revise his remarks in the next few days or face scrutiny for perjury.
Leahy didn't sign the letter from Schumer and the others, but he issued subpoenas for documents and testimony from Rove and his deputy Scott Jennings in connection with the prosecutors' firings.
Justice Department documents and interviews show Rove and Jennings were involved, but the White House has sought to minimize their roles while refusing to volunteer either aide to answer questions.
Democrats are investigating whether the firings were connected to prosecutors' corruption investigations of Republicans or refusals to bring voter-fraud cases against Democrats on weak evidence. The White House denies the firings were retaliatory or improper, but President Bush maintains that his advisers shouldn't be compelled to tell Congress about advice they may have given on personnel matters that don't involve the legislative branch.
"None of the senior officials at the Department of Justice could testify how people were added to the list or the real reasons that people were included among the federal prosecutors to be replaced," Leahy said. "Indeed, the evidence we have been able to collect points to Karl Rove and the political operatives at the White House."
Rove and Jennings have one week to respond, a deadline that coincides with Congress' plans to break for the month of August.