WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department's inspector general acknowledged yesterday that he was examining whether outgoing Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales made false or misleading statements to Congress about the National Security Agency's terrorist surveillance program, the fired U.S. attorneys affair and other subjects.
Responding to a congressional query, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said that his office was investigating Gonzales' conduct as part of several ongoing probes into the activities of department lawyers on Gonzales' watch. While it had long been assumed that the statements Gonzales had made would be part of those inquiries, it was the first public confirmation of the fact by the department's internal watchdog.
"You identified five issues and asked that we investigate whether the statements made by the attorney general were intentionally false, misleading, or inappropriate," Fine wrote in a letter to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. "The [office of the inspector general]has ongoing investigations that relate to most of the subjects addressed by the attorney general's testimony that you identified."
Gonzales announced his resignation Monday, effective Sept. 17, after a tumultuous 2 1/2 years as attorney general. The White House has launched a search for a new attorney general, but President Bush is not expected to announce his choice of a successor before leaving Monday for the Asia-Pacific economic summit in Australia.
In recent months, Democratic and Republican lawmakers had lost confidence in Gonzales because of his perceived lack of candor.
"The current attorney general is leaving, but these questions remain," said Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It is appropriate that the inspector general will examine whether the attorney general was honest with this and other congressional committees about these crucial issues."
At a news conference in March, Gonzales denied that he was involved in deliberations that led to the firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year. But internal department documents that surfaced later showed he attended at least one meeting where the firings were discussed and approved.
In an Aug. 16 letter, Leahy also asked Fine to assess other statements by Gonzales, including testimony that he had not talked with other Justice employees about the ongoing U.S. attorney probe because he did not want to be perceived as trying to influence it. A former top aide involved in the firings, Monica Goodling, subsequently testified that Gonzales had tried to engage her in a discussion about the series of events leading to the dismissal of the prosecutors, and that the approach had made her "uncomfortable."
The Justice Department had no comment on Fine's letter.
Gonzales has said that he misspoke when he told reporters that he was not involved in selecting U.S. attorneys to be fired. He has also denied trying to influence the testimony of Goodling, saying he was only attempting to reassure a distraught employee that she had done nothing wrong.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.