WASHINGTON -- Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee accused Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday of repeatedly misleading Congress and suggested he had perjured himself in connection with statements to lawmakers about an anti-terrorism program.
One after another, Democrats - and some Republicans - accused Gonzales of a pattern of deceit in addressing issues including his role in last year's firing of top prosecutors and his 2004 participation in an unusual late-night visit to the hospital room of his ailing predecessor, John Ashcroft.
"You've come here seeking our trust," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, told Gonzales. "Frankly, Mr. Attorney General, you've lost mine. And this is something I've never said to any Cabinet member before."
The appearance was designed in part for Gonzales, whose credibility has suffered under the weight of multiple controversies, to repair fractured relations with members of Congress. But, if anything, he lost ground as his explanations of prior missteps and statements raised additional questions from senators about his candor and truthfulness.
"I do not find your testimony credible, candidly," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican. "The chairman's already said that the committee's going to review your testimony very carefully to see if your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable."
President Bush still supports Gonzales, but yesterday's confrontation was remarkable for the ridicule heaped upon the nation's top law enforcement officer.
Gonzales said he wanted to stay at the Justice Department to fix the problems that have surfaced during his tenure, including evidence that hiring practices at the department have been influenced by politics. But lawmakers said Gonzales is the principal problem, and they questioned whether the steps he is taking will make a difference.
Gonzales was confronted with a May 2006 memo in which he authorized expanded communications with White House officials, including the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, regarding pending investigations.
"What on earth business does the office of the vice president have in the internal workings of the Department of Justice with respect to criminal investigations, civil investigations, ongoing matters?" asked Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat.
Gonzales acknowledged that he did not have a good answer.
"As a general matter, I would say that that's a good question," the attorney general said, eliciting laughter from the dozen or so protesters in the audience.
The hearing was Gonzales' first opportunity to describe under oath his version of a March 10, 2004, incident in Ashcroft's hospital room. His explanation again was met with skepticism.
James Comey, a former Ashcroft deputy, told the committee this spring that he thought Gonzales and Andrew Card, then the White House chief of staff, had tried to strong-arm Ashcroft into overriding objections Comey had to an administration anti-terrorism program. Ashcroft had named Comey acting attorney general while he was recovering from gallbladder surgery.
Gonzales, who at the time was White House counsel, defended his actions yesterday, saying he decided to involve Ashcroft only after an "emergency meeting" with senior congressional leaders in the White House situation room. He said "the consensus" was that the program should be continued, even though Comey objected.
Gonzales said he knew that Ashcroft was seriously ill. The encounter took place a day after the surgery, and he was in intensive care. But Gonzales denied trying to take advantage of a sick man.
"We never had any intent to ask anything of him if we did not feel that he was competent," he said.
Gonzales also said the disagreement was not about the Terrorist Surveillance Program Bush announced after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which authorized warrantless monitoring of domestic phone conversations and e-mail communications with suspected terrorists overseas. Rather, he said, the disagreement was over "other intelligence activities," which he declined to describe.
The distinction is important because Gonzales told the committee last year that he was aware of no serious dissent within the administration over the warrantless wiretap program.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.