WASHINGTON – The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee is advising — for now — against a perjury investigation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over his apparent misstatements about warrantless spying.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he wanted to wait at least until a briefing Monday by the Bush administration on classified spy programs that could help him decide whether Gonzales lied to Congress.
"Let's give him a chance," Specter said Sunday. "What we want to do is find out what the facts are."
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Last week, four Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee asked Solicitor General Paul Clement for the special probe of Gonzales. The request came after FBI Director Robert S. Mueller appeared to contradict Gonzales' statements about internal administration dissent over the president's secretive wiretapping program.
Gonzales told that committee the program was not at issue when then-White House counsel Gonzales made a dramatic visit to Attorney General John Ashcroft's hospital room in 2004. Mueller, before the House Judiciary Committee, said it was.
The apparent contradiction only compounded problems for Gonzales, who is losing support among members of both parties even as he retains President Bush's, over a series of apparent misstatements since Congress began investigating the firings of federal prosecutors seven months ago.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Gonzales last Thursday giving him a week to resolve any inconsistencies in his testimony. While he has declined so far to support a perjury probe, Leahy indicated that could change.
"He has a week," Leahy said Sunday. "If he doesn't correct it, then I think that there are so many errors in there that the pressure will lead very, very heavily to whether it's a special prosecutor, a special counsel, efforts within the Congress."
Leahy also said he was ready to work with the Bush administration to modernize a law that governs how intelligence agencies monitor the communications of suspected terrorists.
Bush used his weekly radio address over the weekend to urge Congress to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 so the law can better keep pace with the latest technology used by terrorists.
Democrats have indicated they do not want to rush ahead with any changes, seeking to ensure civil liberties are protected and the executive branch is not granted unfettered surveillance powers. But the Bush administration says its latest request is narrowly drawn and urgently needed.
"The proposal would make clear that court orders are not necessary to effectively collect foreign intelligence about foreign targets overseas," the national intelligence director, Mike McConnell, wrote congressional leaders Friday. He urged action before Congress departs on a monthlong summer vacation in early August.
Specter noted that he had not yet been fully briefed on spy programs and thus could not determine whether it was true, as the White House has asserted, that the hospital dispute did not center on the surveillance program but a separate facet that remains classified.
The New York Times, citing anonymous government officials it declined to name, reported Sunday that the 2004 dispute was over computer searches through massive electronic databases, which contain records of phone calls and e-mail messages of millions of Americans.
If the dispute chiefly involved data mining rather than eavesdropping, that raised the question as to whether Gonzales might be technically correct, according to the Times.
Leahy and Specter appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation."
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