WASHINGTON &

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales denied today that he and former White House chief of staff Andy Card pressured then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to recertify President Bush's domestic surveillance program during a now-famous 2004 hospital visit.




Gonzales said that he and Card had been urged by congressional leaders of both parties to ensure that the terrorist surveillance program survive a looming deadline for its expiration. To do that, Gonzales said, he needed the permission of Ashcroft, then the attorney general. Ashcroft at the time was in an intensive care unit recovering from gall bladder surgery.




"We went there because we thought it was important for him to know where the congressional leadership was on this," Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee in his first public explanation of the meeting.




"Clearly if he had been competent and understood the facts and had been inclined to do so, yes we would have asked him," Gonzales added.




"Andy Card and I didn't press him. We said, 'Thank you,' and we left," Gonzales said of the discussion in the hospital room.




Gonzales' version conflicts with that of James Comey, Ashcroft's deputy at the time. When that March 10, 2004, visit occurred, Comey had been handed the powers of the attorney general while his boss recovered. Comey told the committee earlier this year that he had been angered about Gonzales' and Card's appearance at Ashcroft's bedside.




"I was angry," Comey testified in May, releasing details of the meeting for the first time. "I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general."




Comey said that he and Ashcroft had decided against recertifying the classified program. Gonzales was Bush's White House counsel at the time, and there were concerns about whether the eavesdropping program violated civil liberties. The program was slated to expire on March 11, 2004, if not recertified by Justice.




But Gonzales said today that he did not know whether Ashcroft had made a decision or whether he had been aware of Comey's objections. Furthermore, he said, House and Senate leaders of both parties urged him during an emergency meeting earlier on March 10 to make sure the program survived the deadline.




The hospital visit was just one topic on which senators of both parties hammered Gonzales. Ranking Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., was harder on him than the Democrats, repeatedly assailing the attorney general for refusing to answer questions about morale at the Justice Department.




At one point, Specter raised the prospect of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate whether the department fired federal prosecutors at the White House's direction, to make room for new U.S. attorneys who would handle corruption cases in ways that might help Republicans.