WASHINGTON—The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee accused Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday of "consistent stonewalling and misdirection" about the administration's warrantless wiretapping program and set a June 5 deadline for him to turn over long-sought documents about it.
Until they get those documents discussing the legal justifications for the program, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told Gonzales in a scathing letter, they're prepared to block legislation that the White House says is needed to modernize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes the program.
The senators said Gonzales had "rebuffed" their panel's eight formal requests for information about the program over the past 18 months. "Your answers to our questions have been wholly inadequate and, at times, misleading," they wrote.
Their letter questioned Gonzales' actions in reference to testimony last week from former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who told a dramatic story about how then-White House Counsel Gonzales tried to get the classified program reauthorized in 2004. The Justice Department had refused to recertify the program because it questioned its legality, Comey said.
When then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was in intensive care at a Washington hospital, Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card went to the hospital to try to persuade Ashcroft to approve the program anyhow. When Comey was alerted to their move, he hurried to the hospital to block it.
Comey testified that he felt the White House aides were trying to take advantage of a sick man. When Ashcroft also refused to certify the program, the White House decided to continue it anyway, agreeing only weeks later to changes to appease top Justice officials, who had threatened mass resignation if Bush didn't yield to their legal concerns.
"This incident obviously raises very serious questions about your personal behavior and commitment to the rule of law," Leahy and Specter told Gonzales.
They noted that the administration was proposing "dramatic and far-reaching changes" to the FISA, but argued that "before we can even begin to consider" such changes, "we must be given appropriate access to the information necessary to carry out our oversight and legislative duties. ... We intend to do our job."
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd defended the accuracy of Gonzales' past statements about the program to Congress. He said the attorney general had been as responsive as he could be in an unclassified setting.
"We have received the letter and are reviewing it," Boyd said in a prepared statement. "We cannot comment on internal discussions or deliberations that may or may have not taken place concerning classified intelligence activities."
On Monday, President Bush reiterated his support for Gonzales. "He has got my confidence. He has done nothing wrong. ... And I, frankly, view what's taking place in Washington today as pure political theater."
Gonzales already is under fire from many lawmakers, including Leahy and Specter, for his department's handling of last year's firings of at least eight U.S. attorneys. Critics accuse the administration of politicizing the hiring of top prosecutors. Gonzales has testified that he knew little or couldn't remember many key details about the decision-making process.
As part of that investigation, Gonzales' former counselor and White House liaison Monica Goodling is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee as to whether a political litmus test was improperly applied to career hires. She will be granted immunity from prosecution for anything she says to permit Congress to compel her testimony.
(Staff writer Marisa Taylor contributed to this report.)