WASHINGTON -- The director of the FBI, Robert S. Mueller III, in testimony yesterday about a 2004 confrontation in which top Justice Department officials threatened to resign over a secret intelligence operation, offered an account that sharply conflicted with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales' sworn statements about the standoff.
Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee that the confrontation was about the National Security Agency's counterterrorism eavesdropping program, describing it as "an NSA program that has been much discussed." His testimony was a serious blow to Gonzales, who insisted at a Senate hearing Tuesday that there were no disagreements inside the administration about the program.
Mueller testified on a day when Senate Democrats demanded the appointment of a special counsel to investigate whether Gonzales committed perjury during his testimony Tuesday about the intelligence dispute.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, issued a subpoena to Karl Rove, the White House senior political adviser, and another presidential aide, J. Scott Jennings, for testimony about the dismissal of federal prosecutors.
White House officials said the Democrats were engaging in political gamesmanship.
"What we are witnessing is an out-of-control Congress which spends time calling for special prosecutors, launching investigations, issuing subpoenas and generally just trying to settle scores," said Scott M. Stanzel, a White House spokesman. "All the while they fail to pass appropriations bills and important issues like immigration reform, energy and other problems go unanswered."
The FBI director's remarks were especially significant because Mueller is the Justice Department's chief law enforcement official and played a key role in the 2004 dispute over the program, intervening with President Bush to help avert mass resignations.
The conflict underscored how Gonzales' troubles have expanded beyond allegations of improper political influence in the dismissal of U.S. attorneys to the handling of the NSA program, in which Gonzales was significantly involved in his previous post as White House counsel.
"I had an understanding that the discussion was on an NSA program," Mueller said in answer to a question from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
Asked whether he was referring to the Terrorist Surveillance Program, or TSP, he replied, "The discussion was on a national NSA program that has been much discussed, yes." Mueller said he had taken notes of some of his conversations about the issue, and after the hearing the committee asked him to produce them.
In a grueling four-hour appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Gonzales denied that the dispute arose over the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the existence of which was confirmed by President Bush in December 2005 after it was disclosed by The New York Times, saying it centered on "other intelligence activities."
Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, said last night that Gonzales had testified truthfully, saying that "confusion is inevitable when complicated classified activities are discussed in a public forum where the greatest care must be used not to compromise sensitive intelligence operations."
The spokesman said that when Gonzales said there had been no controversy about the eavesdropping operation, he was referring only to the program to intercept international communications that Bush publicly confirmed.
"The disagreement that occurred in March 2004 concerned the legal basis for intelligence activities that have not been publicly disclosed and that remain highly classified," Roehrkasse said.
The four Democratic senators seeking an inquiry into Gonzales' testimony sent a letter to the Justice Department saying, "It is apparent that the attorney general has provided at a minimum half truths and misleading statements."
The senators asked for the appointment of a special counsel. While the Justice Department is not obliged to act on their request, the letter reflected the chasm of distrust that has opened between lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee and Gonzales.
The senators who signed the letter were Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Dianne Feinstein of California, Charles E. Schumer of New York and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Feinstein, Feingold and Whitehouse are members of the intelligence committee and have been briefed on the intelligence programs at issue.
The senators' letter was sent to Paul D. Clement, the solicitor general, because Gonzales is recused from investigations of his own conduct. In addition to his statements to Congress about the intelligence controversy, the letter raised the possibility that Gonzales lied about the prosecutor firings.
In what amounted to a warning to the attorney general, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, sent Gonzales the transcript of Tuesday's hearing, asking him to "mark any changes you wish to make to correct, clarify or supplement your answers so that, consistent with your oath, they are the whole truth."
Similar requests are routinely sent to witnesses after hearings, but Leahy's pointed language underscored his view of the seriousness of the dispute over Gonzales' veracity.
Still, neither Leahy nor Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee's top Republican and a tough critic of Gonzales, joined in the call for a perjury investigation.
"I don't think you rush off precipitously and ask for appointment of special counsel to run that kind of an investigation," Specter said.