What’s It All About? If Anything?

I’ve never been a fan of Alberto Gonzales, mostly because he isn’t very conservative. But, reading this Associated Press account of his appearance today before the Senate Judiciary Committee–perhaps the world’s number one center of ill-founded self-righteousness–it’s hard not to be sympathetic:

Democrats and Republicans alike hammered Gonzales in four hours of testimony as he denied trying, as White House counsel in 2004, to push a hospitalized attorney general into approving a counterterror program that the Justice Department then viewed as illegal.

This is the famous incident when Gonzales and Andy Card went to see John Ashcroft in the hospital. The Senators abused Gonzales mercilessly, relying on the self-serving account of the event that was given to them by Jim Comey. Yet, as Gonzales described the incident, it’s hard to see much ground for criticism. He and Card talked to Ashcroft, and, when they found that he was unable or unwilling to respond affirmatively to their request, they left. Further, Gonzales noted that his mission was encouraged by Congress:

Gonzales described the encounter at Ashcroft’s hospital bedside as having come at the bidding of congressional leaders who urged the administration to continue the program. He said he and Card “didn’t press him. We said, ‘Thank you,’ and we left.”
“We went there because we thought it was important for him to know where the congressional leadership was on this,” Gonzales said.

Jay Rockefeller and Tom Daschle objected to Gonzales’s recollection of his meeting with Congressional leaders, but it is hard to think of two less reliable sources. So far, I’ve seen no response from members of what was then the Congressional majority.
More interesting, perhaps, was Gonzales’s testimony that the hospital incident did not relate to the NSA’s warrantless interception of international terrorist communications:

Senators furiously accused Gonzales of misleading them a year ago when he testified there were no internal objections to the eavesdropping program that targeted suspected terrorists in the United States. Gonzales, however, said the hospital confrontation dealt with a different intelligence program that he would not identify.
“The disagreement that occurred, and the reason for the visit to the hospital, senator, was about other intelligence activities,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales offered to explain to the Senators what program was involved, away from the television cameras. But the Committee’s majority members seemed to be interested only in abusing Gonzales, and not in finding out the facts.
For the rest, the Senators’ ire focused on issues of executive privilege, as to which Gonzales declined to pledge to take the Senate’s side. No surprise here, but executive privilege is one of the few truly bipartisan issues in Washington, so both Democrats and Republicans weighed in fervently if not cogently.
Normally you wouldn’t think of the Attorney General of the United States as an underdog, but reading the AP’s account, it’s hard not to sympathize with Gonzales as a relatively rational witness in a forum where truth is beside the point.
PAUL adds: I only heard bits and pieces of Gonzales’s testimony, but in these fragments at least, he handled himself well.
It’s important to keep in mind the context of the hospital visit by Gonzales and Andrew Card to the ailing Ashcroft. As John emphasized when the Comey first testified about the incident, and as Gonzales stressed today, the intelligence program in question was one that the Justice Department had signed off on routinely in the past. Suddenly, Comey, who was acting as Attorney General due to Ashcroft’s medical condition, reversed the Department’s position.
Gonzales says he brought this to the attention of “the Gang of 8,” namely the top two House and Senate leaders on both sides and the top two members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. As Gonzales tells it, this group urged Gonzales to find a way to keep the program going. Under these circumstances, as John says, Gonzales acted reasonably and wisely in raising the issue with Ashcroft, provided that he did not attempt to take advantage of Ashcroft’s condition to obtain consent. And even in Comey’s account, Ashcroft was completely lucid and on top of the issues during his conversation with Gonzales and Card. Thus, there was no condition of which they could have taken advantage.
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