Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
WASHINGTON (CNN) – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales disputed testimony Tuesday from his one-time deputy, who said Gonzales and another White House official tried to pressure then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, when he was hospitalized in 2004, to reauthorize a surveillance program against terror suspects.
Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified in May that officials wanted Ashcroft to reverse a Justice Department opinion that the warrantless wiretapping program was illegal. He said Gonzales, then-White House counsel, and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card went to the hospital where Ashcroft was in intensive care to get him to sign off on the program, which the administration supported.
Ashcroft had turned his authority over to Comey while he was ill, and Comey said when he heard that Gonzales and Card were going to the hospital, he rushed over there.
Gonzales testified Tuesday that Ashcroft had been backing the program for at least two years, likely from its inception, and there was no disagreement over it.
"The disagreement that occurred, and the reason for the visit to the hospital, senator, was about other intelligence activities. It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people," Gonzales told Sen. Arlen Specter, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"Mr. Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?" Specter asked impatiently.
According to Gonzales, there was an emergency meeting that day at the White House that included senior members in the administration and bipartisan leaders in Congress.
The purpose of the meeting, he said, was to tell Congress that Comey "had advised us that he could not approve the continuation of vitally important intelligence activities, despite the repeated approvals during the past two years of the same activities."
"I want to move to the point about how can you get approval from Ashcroft for anything when he's under sedation and incapacitated - for anything," Specter responded.
Ashcroft was competent to make a decision and sign the document, Gonzales insisted. He could always take back his authorization from Comey, the attorney general added.
While he's in the hospital under sedation?" Specter asked.
Specter also asked Gonzales how there could be a constitutional government if the president claims executive privilege when Congress exerts its constitutional authority for oversight.
"Senator, both the Congress and the president have constitutional authorities. Sometimes they clash. In most cases, accommodations are reached," Gonzales said.
Would you focus on my question for just a minute, please?" Specter said.
"Senator, I'm not going to answer this question, because it does relate to an ongoing controversy in which I am recused," the attorney general said.
His response elicited loud boos from the audience.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, also questioned Gonzales about the hospital visit, and Gonzales repeated several times that the issue was "very complicated."
"I can't get into the fine details, quite frankly, because I want to be fair to Attorney General Ashcroft," Gonzales said.
Comey has testified that by the time he arrived at the room, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller had told FBI agents not to allow Gonzales and Card to push Comey out.