White House officials accused senators of asking Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales questions about a program they knew he could not address in public, in order to justify their calls for an investigation by a special prosecutor.
“You’ve got an interesting situation when members of Congress, knowing that somebody is constrained by matters of classification, they can ask very broad questions … they know the person sitting on the other side cannot answer thoroughly in an open session,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
“You can create any kind of perception you want, by saying, well, can’t you finish the answer, or why don’t you tell us this, or why don’t you tell us that, knowing perfectly well that there are very real constraints there,” Mr. Snow said.
His comments were aimed at a group of senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee who grilled Mr. Gonzales for several hours Tuesday about the Bush administration’s terrorist-surveillance program.
Senators accused Mr. Gonzales of contradicting past statements and of misleading them about whether there was disagreement within the administration over the program.
On Thursday, four Democratic senators — Charles E. Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — called on Solicitor General Paul D. Clement to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether Mr. Gonzales gave false testimony.
That same day, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III testified before a House panel, and Democrats said his testimony contradicted Mr. Gonzales’.
White House officials pushed back on Friday, saying that Mr. Mueller’s testimony did not contradict the attorney general’s, and saying that Mr. Gonzales has told the truth.
“It is clear that there are a lot of members of Congress who don’t like his performance, but the president supports him and the president supports his performance,” Mr. Snow said.
But he threaded the same needle that Mr. Gonzales has in refusing to say which intelligence activities were the subject of disagreement in 2004.
“There’s a possibility that there were broader discussions, and I’m not going to get into the context of those,” Mr. Snow said. “[There] could be some controversies about other intelligence activities.”
Mr. Gonzales said there was no disagreement about the domestic eavesdropping program, which was disclosed by President Bush in December 2005. That would mean there was some debate about other intelligence-gathering activities in 2004.
Mr. Snow said government officials “simply cannot give a full and complete answer, because to do so would compromise American security.”
But Mr. Schumer said the Bush administration was raising a false alarm.
“They’re afraid of the truth. They could easily discuss the program without disclosing its details,” he said.
The ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, also asked numerous questions of Mr. Gonzales about disagreement within the Bush administration over domestic-surveillance activities.
Mr. Specter, however, castigated Mr. Schumer and other Democrats who joined the call for a special prosecutor.
“Senator Schumer has made a practice of politicizing this matter,” Mr. Specter said.