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Ethics: Less Than No Confidence

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was put on the hot seat yesterday by the Senate Judiciary Committee and forced to resolve discrepancies in his public statements regarding the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program.

JULY 25, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Nico Pitney, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, and Matt Corley
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ETHICS

Less Than No Confidence

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was put on the hot seat yesterday by the Senate Judiciary Committee and forced to resolve discrepancies in his public statements regarding the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance program. In Feb. 2006, Gonzales testified that “there has not been any serious disagreement” about the warrantless spying program conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA). In May, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified in lurid detail about such serious disagreement over the administration’s spying activities, explaining that a host of senior administration leaders — including Comey, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, and FBI Director Robert Mueller — were prepared to resign over it. Then, in June, Gonzales claimed in a press conference that Comey’s testimony referred to the NSA program “which the president confirmed to the American people sometime ago.” Gonzales’s answer suggested two possibilities: 1) either Comey and Gonzales were referring to the same spying program, in which case, Gonzales had misled the Committee when he claimed there were no “serious disagreements” about the program’s legality, or 2) Comey’s objections related to separate spying programs. Yesterday, Gonzales claimed it was the latter — that Comey’s disagreement “was about other intelligence activities,” thereby suggesting that other illegal spying programs may exist. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) ordered a complete review of Gonzales’s statements. “This is such a significant and major point,” Leahy said. “There’s a discrepancy here in sworn testimony and we’re going to find out who’s telling the truth.”

MAJOR DISCREPANCIES: Gonzales testified yesterday that Comey’s objections were resolved when a bipartisan eight-member panel of top congressional leaders agreed in March 2004 to continue the NSA program. But Gonzales’s contention was quickly refuted by at least three members of the so-called “Gang of Eight.” Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV), who was ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, “said lawmakers were never asked to enact legislation as a way to overcome concerns by Comey and other Justice Dept. officials over the legality of any intel program.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said, “I made clear my disagreement with what the White House was asking.” And former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) added, “I am quite certain that at no time did we encourage the [Attorney General] or anyone else to take such actions.” Coming into the hearing with a reputation that “couldn’t possibly get much worse,” Gonzales managed to destroy his credibility further. “I do not find your testimony credible, candidly,” said the committee’s ranking member Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA). Leahy added, I don’t trust you.”

THE HOSPITAL VISIT: For the first time, Gonzales was forced to confront allegations by Comey that he and former White House chief of staff Andrew Card rushed to the bedside of a hospitalized John Ashcroft in 2004, seeking his sign-off on a spying program because Comey refused to give his approval. Gonzales rejected accusations that they were improperly pressuring Ashcroft. “When we got [to the hospital], I would just say that Mr. Ashcroft did most of the talking. … At the end of his description of the legal issues, he said, ‘I’m not making this decision; the deputy attorney general is,'” Gonzales said, recalling Ashcroft’s reference to Comey. “And so Andy Card and I thanked him. We told him that we would continue working with the deputy attorney general, and we left.” Comey testified to a much different version of events in May, explaining that he had been “very angry” during the hospital encounter because “I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.” Comey also made reference to the fact that Mueller had ordered FBI agents not to let Card and Gonzales throw Comey out of the hospital. Gonzales said yesterday he could not answer why such action was deemed necessary because “I’m not Director Mueller.” Gonzales also repeatedly dodged the question of who sent him to the hospital.

SPECTER THREATENS MORE ACTION: In June, a majority of the Senate expressed its desire to see the body take a no-confidence vote on Gonzales. The Washington Post writes, “At what point does someone lose so much credibility that he should no longer serve in public office?” Specter yesterday appeared to raise the possibility of bringing perjury charges against Gonzales, arguing, “Your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable.” Time reports, “Specter wryly noted to reporters during a break that there is a jail in the Capitol complex.” Specter also “raised the stakes for Gonzales and the administration yesterday by suggesting that a special prosecutor may be needed” if Gonzales and the White House continue to thwart congressional oversight.

UNDER THE RADAR

ETHICS — REPORT OUTLINES SPECIFIC WAYS ADMINISTRATION MAY HAVE BROKEN LAW IN U.S. ATTORNEY SCANDAL: In preparation for a vote today on contempt of Congress citations for White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) has prepared a 52-page memo “that for the first time alleges specific ways that several administration officials may have broken the law during the multiple firings of U.S. attorneys.” “The report says that Congress’s seven-month investigation into the firings raises ‘serious concerns’ that senior White House and Justice Department aides involved in the removal of nine U.S. attorneys last year may have obstructed justice and violated federal statutes.” It also lays out Congress’s case for overriding “an effort by the White House to shield officials and documents from the congressional inquiry through a claim of executive privilege.” Last week, the White House cited a 1984 legal opinion written by former administration solicitor general Ted Olson, claiming “the Justice Department will never be allowed to pursue contempt charges initiated by Congress against White House officials once the president has invoked executive privilege.” The report contends that the opinion “does not apply here” because President Bush “has not furnished a signed statement or ‘privilege logs’ specifying the documents being withheld. In addition, the memo says, ‘there is not the slightest indication’ the 1984 opinion would apply to a former executive branch official, such as Miers.”

ADMINISTRATION — BUSH ISN’T ‘BIG ON YOUTUBE DEBATES’: Monday’s CNN Democratic presidential debate allowed ordinary citizens around the country to be heard. By uploading a 30-second video to YouTube, “voters could directly question a presidential candidate during the debate.” Thirty-nine videos were chosen from the 2,989 submitted. CNN will hold a similar debate for the Republican candidates on Sept. 17. Carol Darr of George Washington University said that for the first time, “the filter that mainstream establishment media plays in presidential races — ‘we ask the questions, we are the exalted panel’ — that was broken down.” Yesterday morning in a press briefing aboard Air Force One, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Tony Snow whether the President’s remarks later in the day about terrorism would address some of the criticisms from the Democratic presidential debate. When Snow said they wouldn’t, the reporter asked, “Did he watch the debate?” Snow responded, “I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s big on YouTube debates.” It’s not surprising that President Bush would dislike open, democratic debates. The Bush administration has banned Democrats from events in order to fabricate a sympathetic, supportive audience. During the 2004 campaign, “attendees to Bush rallies were turned away for wearing pro-John Kerry T-shirts and stickers.” They also were often encouraged to take pledges of support for the President and answer questions about their loyalty to Bush in order to attend. Perhaps Bush isn’t “big on YouTube debates” because they aren’t conducive to “catapulting the propaganda.”

ETHICS — SCANDAL-CLAD REP. YOUNG FACES FEDERAL INVESTIGATION FOR POLITICAL FAVORS:
Rep. Don Young (R-AK) is now under federal investigation by the Justice Department for alleged political favors for a company in Alaska, the Wall Street Journal reports today. “Federal investigators are examining whether Rep. Young…accepted bribes, illegal gratuities or unreported gifts from VECO Corp., Alaska’s largest oil-field engineering firm.” “While the investigation into Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R-AK) ties to Veco, including the remodeling of his Girdwood home, has been widely reported, this is the first time Young has been implicated in the scandal.” “For a decade, former VECO Chief Executive Bill Allen has held fund-raisers for Mr. Young in Anchorage every August, known as ‘The Pig Roast,’ participants said.” Public records show that between 1996 and 2000, VECO employees and the company’s political action committee gave at least at least $157,000 to Young. The congressman’s history of abuse of power is well-documented. Recently, he collaborated in a pork project with several Alaska congressmen to earmark a “Bridge to Nowhere” for personal profiteering and has long-standing ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Young also confessed to “taking more than $5,500 in illegal campaign contributions from a seafood trade association since 2001,” but he refuses to return all the donations. 

THINK FAST

Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the commander at Fort Lewis in Washington state, is expected to decide today whether to go through with plans to hold memorial services for U.S. troops killed in Iraq once every month, instead of after each death. Military families and others have protested the proposal.

“A federal judge in California ruled Tuesday against the federal government’s attempts to stop investigations in five states of President Bush’s domestic spying program.” The judge ruled that “neither the Supremacy Clause nor the foreign affairs power of the government prevented a state from asking about phone records.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), who championed the confirmation John Roberts and Samuel Alito, plans to review the Supreme Court justices’ Senate testimony to “determine if their reversal of several long-standing opinions conflicts with promises they made to senators to win confirmation.”

“The Agriculture Department sent $1.1 billion in farm payments to more than 170,000 dead people over a seven-year period,” according to a new Government Accountability Office Report. Forty percent of those payments “went to those who had been dead more than three years.” 

Since Congress imposed strict new documentation rules, Medicaid rolls declined in many states. But “most of the drop-off appears to be among people eligible for coverage — not illegal immigrants.” The “law that took effect July 1 requires states to obtain evidence of citizenship and nationality when determining whether people are eligible for Medicaid.”

“More than a quarter of the computer equipment at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington could not be found by investigators, government auditors reported. Three other agency facilities — in San Diego, Indianapolis and the agency’s headquarters — could not find up to 11 percent of their equipment.”

“In an unusually heated face-to-face meeting, a U.S. ambassador accused Iran on Tuesday of increasing arms shipments for militias who are fomenting violence in Iraq.” Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said, “I would not describe this as a shouting match throughout, but we were real clear.”

“Days after the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s chief spokesman said concerns about formaldehyde would not stop it from selling or donating surplus disaster trailers, the agency said Tuesday that it is reviewing the policy.”

And finally: On Monday, Rep. Gary Miller’s (R-CA) outfit received disapproving looks from his colleagues. According to Roll Call, Miller sported “a look better suited to a backyard cookout than the House chamber: a loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt, linen pants and slippers.” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), the presiding officer at the time, said, “The chair must remind Members that the proper standard of dress in the chamber is business attire, which includes both coat and tie for gentlemen.”

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GOOD NEWS

Today, India inaugurated its first woman president, “a move that has been touted as a boost for women in a country where they often face rampant discrimination.”

STATE WATCH

NEW JERSEY: “New Jersey will need about $58 billion, in today’s dollars, to provide all the care it has promised its current and future retirees.”

MICHIGAN: “The area in southeast Michigan where 2,000 Iraqi refugees are expected to resettle already has 169,000 people out of work.”

CALIFORNIA: Conservatives propose moving “tens of thousands of poor families off welfare” in exchange for ending a budget impasse.

BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) on her trip to Iraq: It’s like visiting the “Mall of America.”

THE SLEUTH: Karl Rove has “still got legal bills to pay” and plans to “write books” after he leaves the White House in 18 months.

DAILY KOS: The right wing launches a coordinated assault on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

TPM MUCKRAKER: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) grills Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on why Vice President Cheney’s office was given access to Department of Justice case info.

DAILY GRILL

“It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people.”
— Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, 7/24/07, referring to the program to which Deputy Attorney General James Comey objected in 2004

VERSUS

“Mr. Comey’s testimony related to a highly classified program which the president confirmed to the American people sometime ago.”
— Gonzales, 6/5/07