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White House Backs Attorney General Despite Controversies


The White House says President Bush still has confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, despite controversy over his handling of the firing of federal prosecutors and of the reauthorization of a clandestine surveillance program. New details emerged Tuesday about Gonzales' role in recertifying the wiretap program over Justice Department objections when he was White House counsel. VOA's Deborah Tate reports.

The new details about Gonzales' actions came from former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Comey said he had refused to recertify the clandestine program because then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had questioned its legality just before falling ill with pancreatitis in March 2004.

Comey, who was acting attorney general during Ashcroft's illness, said Gonzales and former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card responded by trying to pressure Ashcroft to sign the recertification from his hospital bed. "I was very upset, I was angry. I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me," he said.

But Comey said Ashcroft refused to sign the document and noted that Comey was the acting attorney general.

A day later, the wiretap program was reauthorized without the Justice Department's approval.

Although previously reported, it was Comey's first public testimony about the incident.

At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow declined to comment on the testimony. Instead, he praised the wiretap program and said it had come under rigorous review.

"The terrorist surveillance program was something that was always reviewed by the Department of Justice, either 45 or 90 day periods, and furthermore, was reviewed by the inspectors general at the Department of Justice and the National Security Agency. In addition, there was a review by the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court. The terrorist surveillance program saved lives, period," he said.

The wiretap program was set up after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and allowed the National Security Agency to monitor, without court warrants, phone calls and e-mails between suspected terrorists overseas and people in the United States.

In addition to testifying about Gonzales' role in recertifying the surveillance program, Comey also testified about the firings of U.S. attorneys. He praised many of the eight attorneys who were dismissed in a controversy that has led to bipartisan calls for Attorney General Gonzales' resignation.

The Senate panel is investigating whether the attorneys were dismissed to influence the prosecution of corruption cases with the aim of helping Republicans - as some Democratic critics have alleged. Gonzales and other Bush administration officials say the dismissals were justified, if mishandled.

On Monday, the current deputy attorney general, Paul McNulty, became the highest-ranking Justice Department official to announce he would resign since the controversy erupted in January.

At a speech at the National Press Club Tuesday, Gonzales said McNulty was ultimately responsible for recommending the attorney firings. "At the end of the day, the recommendations reflected the views of the deputy attorney general, who signed off on the names," he said.

Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Gonzales, who testified before the committee last month, is trying to shift blame for the controversy. "Mr. Gonzales said in this hearing room that he accepts responsibility for the firings. Well, he should live up to his words and not point a finger today at Mr. McNulty," he said.

The top Republican on the committee, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, was even tougher. "I think the resignation of Mr. McNulty is another significant step in evidence that the department really cannot function with the continued leadership or lack of leadership of Attorney General Gonzales," he said.

Gonzales reiterated that whether he remains as attorney general is up to President Bush.

White House spokesman Tony Snow says the president continues to have confidence in his attorney general.

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