Democratic and Republican senators yesterday accused Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales of deceiving them about a top-secret domestic surveillance program and other matters, and told him that a trail of obfuscation and misleading answers has destroyed all trust in his leadership.
"I do not find your testimony credible, candidly," Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told Mr. Gonzales after a nearly four-hour oversight hearing.
Mr. Specter said Judiciary Committee members would look at whether the attorney general's credibility "has been breached to the point of being actionable," but he did not expand. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, speculated that Mr. Specter was talking about introducing articles of impeachment.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said Mr. Gonzales' testimony about a high-profile meeting in 2004 was inaccurate and that the attorney general may have perjured himself.
Mr. Gonzales yesterday tried to explain to the committee why he rushed to the hospital bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft in March 2004 about a top-secret intelligence-gathering matter. Mr. Ashcroft was in intensive care after gallbladder surgery.
Mr. Ashcroft's deputy, James Comey, who was acting as attorney general, was delaying the intelligence-gathering program on legal grounds.
Mr. Gonzales said he went to Mr. Ashcroft's bedside with the backing of a group of congressional leaders known as the "Gang of Eight" — the top leaders in the House and Senate along with the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
"The purpose of that meeting was for the White House to advise the Congress that Mr. Comey had advised us that he could not approve the continuation of vitally important intelligence activities, despite the repeated approvals during the past two years of the same activities," said Mr. Gonzales, who was White House counsel at the time.
"The consensus in the room from the congressional leadership is that we should continue the activities, at least for now, despite the objections of Mr. Comey," Mr. Gonzales said.
Mr. Rockefeller, who was the ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence at the time, said yesterday that he had never heard of Mr. Comey, and that there was no mention of serious disagreement over an intelligence matter at a March 10, 2004, meeting.
"Once again, [Mr. Gonzales] is making up something to protect himself," said Mr. Rockefeller, who now serves as chairman of the intelligence committee.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, told The Washington Times last night that he remembered the meeting clearly.
"I arrived early and stayed to the very end," Mr. Frist said by e-mail. "I recall being briefed with the others about the program and that Gonzales would visit with Ashcroft in the hospital."
Mr. Frist's recollection that Mr. Gonzales told the congressional leaders he planned to visit Mr. Ashcroft in the hospital contradicts Mr. Gonzales' testimony yesterday.
"I'm not sure that they knew ... that we went," Mr. Gonzales told the panel. "Put it this way: I did not tell them."
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said yesterday that "the attorney general stands by his testimony."
"We find Chairman Rockefeller's statements about his lack of familiarity with this issue puzzling since the chairman's committee has been conducting oversight on this very specific issue," Mr. Roehrkasse said.
Judiciary Committee members expressed outrage about Mr. Gonzales' shifting answers on the specific reason for going to Mr. Ashcroft's bedside.
Mr. Comey suggested in May testimony that the issue under discussion was the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP), a domestic surveillance operation of the National Security Agency. Mr. Gonzales, however, said the TSP was not under discussion.
"The disagreement that occurred and the reason for the visit to the hospital, senator, was about other intelligence activities. It was not about the Terrorist Surveillance Program that the president announced to the American people," Mr. Gonzales said.
Mr. Gonzales told Congress in February 2006 that no disagreement within the Justice Department had arisen over the TSP, but last month said in a press conference that Mr. Comey's testimony was related to the TSP. Mr. Gonzales yesterday said he had misspoken last month, and retracted that statement.
After that, an exasperated Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, exclaimed, "You're not being straightforward with this committee."