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U.S. Attorney General Gonzales questioned again about Bush's wiretapping program, response to subpoenas

AP | July 20, 2007

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales came under new questioning Thursday about President George W. Bush's wiretapping program and the administration response to congressional subpoenas.

In a closed-door session, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes said members were especially interested in the reasons behind Gonzales' controversial 2004 visit to the hospital bedside of John Ashcroft, reportedly to pressure the ailing attorney general to endorse Bush's surveillance program. Ashcroft, said to have been barely conscious at the time, refused.

Gonzales did not express any regret, Reyes said after the hearing ended.

"He, I thought, explained it very well in terms of why they had gone there," said Reyes, a Democrat, declining to provide specifics because many details are classified.

Details of the hospital visit, first revealed in congressional testimony by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, intensified calls by Democrats and some Republicans for Gonzales' resignation. The attorney general has shown no signs that he will step down and President George W. Bush has expressed support for his longtime friend.

Democrats are not finished with him, however. In a letter to Gonzales on Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and other Democrats demanded to know whether a Justice Department memo declaring presidential aides absolutely immune from subpoenas was drafted legally.

That issue concerns demands by lawmakers for testimony from such advisers as former presidential counsel Harriet Miers.

The deadline for Gonzales' answer: Monday, 24 hours before he is to testify publicly before the panel about an assortment of controversial Justice Department matters.

Democrats say the tale of the hospital visit is important because it shows the extent to which the administration will exert executive power over questions of whether civil liberties are being protected.

According to Comey, he and Ashcroft had refused to recertify the legality of the surveillance program before the attorney general fell ill with pancreatitis. On the eve of a deadline, Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card sought to go over Comey's head to Ashcroft, then in intensive care recovering from surgery. What followed was the dramatic scene at Ashcroft's bedside, Comey said.

During the closed-door meeting Thursday, Gonzales disclosed new details about the circumstances of the visit, Reyes told reporters. Reyes could not repeat many of them because the surveillance program is classified. Gonzales did not comment as he entered and exited the building.

But Reyes said he was satisfied with Gonzales' explanation and cautioned against drawing conclusions.

"When there are issues of national security at stake, I think certainly one should not question the motivation of individuals," Reyes told reporters. "I'm willing to accept the rationale behind it."


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