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Congress on collision course with Bush over wiretapping inquiry

London Independent | July 27, 2007
Rupert Cornwell

Congress was heading for a double constitutional showdown with the White House last night, as Democrats called for a special prosecutor to investigate whether Alberto Gonzales, the Attorney General, lied to them over the firing of US attorneys and over President Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance programme.

The move came a day after the House Judiciary Committee voted to hold two top aides of Mr Bush in contempt of Congress for ignoring subpoenas to provide evidence an investigation into the dismissal of the nine attorneys in late 2006 - which Democrats say was blatant political meddling in the country's judicial system.

That challenge, however, will not come to a head until September when Congress returns from its summer recess. Of most immediate concern to the White House is the new onslaught against Mr Gonzales, whose resignation has already been demanded by Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

"We ask that you immediately appoint an independent special counsel from outside the Department of Justice to determine whether Attorney General Gonzales may have misled Congress or perjured himself in testimony before Congress," a group of four senators wrote in a letter to the solicitor general, the administration's top lawyer.

They accused Mr Gonzales of providing "at a minimum half-truths and misleading statements" when he appeared this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. They claim he was seeking to cover up an internal adminstration rift over the legality of the warrantless wiretapping. The dispute culminated in a unannounced visit in 2004 by Mr Gonzales, then Mr Bush's White House counsel, to the bedside of John Ashcroft, the critically ill Attorney General, to have him approve an extension to the programme.

Mr Gonzales' conduct had been "stunning", said Charles Schumer of New York, one of the four signatories. Even so, the adminstration almost certainly will reject the demand. White House memories are still fresh of the last such foray by a special prosecutor, which led this year to the conviction of Lewis Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, for perjury and obstruction of justice.

At the same time, it emerged the Judiciary Committee has issued a subpoena against Karl Rove, the President's top adviser, to force him to testify in the US attorneys affair. He is the third senior White House official in such a position, after Joshua Bolten, Mr Bush's chief of staff, and the former White House counsel Harriet Miers. Their refusal to comply now threatens them with contempt.

For months, the Democrat-controlled Congress has been trying to determine whether the dismissal of the nine prosecutors was ordered by the White House, to influence corruption cases in favour of Republican candidates. The administration denies it, but has invoked executive privilege to prevent Mr Bolten and Ms Miers testifying. It seems bound to do the same in the case of Mr Rove.

The dispute has mushroomed into a battle between the executive and legislative branches of the US government that could lead to the biggest court showdown of its kind since Richard Nixon fought in vain against handing over the Watergate tapes. Subsequent clashes have usually ended in compromise, but there is no sign of any such deal now with a Republican president famous for his stubbornness.

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