Senate Democrats called today for a special counsel to investigate whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales perjured himself regarding the firings of U.S. attorneys and administration dissent over President Bush's domestic surveillance program.
"It has become apparent that the attorney general has provided at a minimum half-truths and misleading statements," four members of the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote in a letter to Solictor General Paul Clement.
They asked Clement to immediately appoint an indepedent counsel from outside the Justice Department to determine whether Gonzales "may have misled Congress or perjured himself in testimony before Congress."
"We do not make this request lightly," wrote Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
A draft copy of the letter was obtained by The Associated Press shortly before a news conference planned by the senators.
Neither Gonzales nor the Justice Department had immediate comment about the letter. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he supports the request.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in a separate letter today to Gonzales, said he would give the attorney general eight days to correct, clarify or otherwise change his testimony "so that, consistent with your oath, they are the whole truth."
The four senators said that Gonzales' testimony last year that there had been no internal dissent over the president's warrantless wiretapping program conflicted with testimony by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey and with Gonzales' own statements this week before the Judiciary Committee.
They also said Gonzales falsely told the panel that he had not talked about the firings with other Justice Department officials. His former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, told the House Judiciary Committee under a grant of immunity that she had an "uncomfortable" conversation with Gonzales in which he outlined his recollection of what happened and asked her for her reaction.
"The attorney general should be held to the highest ethical standards," the senators wrote.
Clement would decide whether to appoint a special prosecutor because Gonzales and outgoing Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty have recused themselves from the investigation that involves them. The Justice Department's No. 3, Associate Attorney General William Mercer, is serving only in an acting capacity and therefore does not have the authority to do so.
At issue is what was discussed at a March 10, 2004, congressional briefing. A letter from then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said the briefing concerned the administration's terrorist surveillance program on the eve of its expiration.
But Gonzales, at Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, repeatedly testified that the issue at hand was not about the terrorist surveillance program, which allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on suspects in the United States without receiving prior court approval.
Instead, Gonzales said, the emergency meetings on March 10, 2004, focused on an intelligence program that he would not describe. He said the meeting prompted him to go to the bedside of ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft to recertify the surveillance program, but he denied pressuring Ashcroft to do so. Ashcroft, recovering from gall bladder surgery, refused.
White House press secretary Tony Snow defended Gonzales today but would not talk about the subject of the 2004 briefing.
"Unfortunately we get into areas that you cannot discuss openly," Snow said. "It's a very complex issue. But the attorney general 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."
Two former Republican chairmen joined Democrats in recent days in suggesting that the questions surrounding Gonzales be resolved by those outside the process.
Sen. Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and former chairman, on Tuesday told Gonzales during his appearance before the panel that a special prosecutor might be needed.
"I do not find your testimony credible, candidly," Specter told Gonzales.
Specter's counterpart on the House side, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., suggested that the House file a civil suit against the administration's executive privilege claim.
And Specter brought his concerns directly to Bush aboard Air Force One this morning.
The senator, accompanying Bush on a trip to Philadelphia, said the president was sticking by Gonzales out of personal loyalty despite the attorney general's deteriorating support on Capitol Hill.
"The hearing two days ago was devastating (for Gonzales). But so was the hearing before that and so was the hearing before that," Specter said.
Associated Press reporter Lara Jakes Jordan contributed to this story.
Dems want investigation of Gonzales for possible perjury