Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
WASHINGTON (CNN) –A group of Senate Democrats on Thursday called for a special counsel to investigate whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales perjured himself during Capitol Hill testimony.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies under oath Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The group said it plans to make the request in a letter to the solicitor general.
The development came just before Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer, Russ Feingold, Sheldon Whitehouse and Dianne Feinstein were set to hold a news conference on Gonzales' testimony before the Judiciary Committee this week.
It's the latest salvo in a dispute regarding President Bush's domestic surveillance program. On Wednesday night, the Justice Department said Gonzales "stands by" Senate testimony that appeared to contradict a memo about a White House meeting with congressional leaders in 2004.
Gonzales testified under oath Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the March 10, 2004, meeting - when Gonzales was White House counsel - was not prompted by the Bush administration's program to monitor communications with terror suspects overseas without warrants.
Under questioning from the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales said that on March 10, 2004 - when he was White House counsel - he and other officials met at the White House with eight top congressional leaders after Deputy Attorney General James Comey refused to approve "continuation of a very important intelligence activity."
In his testimony, Gonzales refused to discuss what that the intelligence activity was, but he testified the dispute with Comey that prompted the meeting - and a subsequent visit to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in his hospital bed - was not over a controversial program to monitor communications with terror suspects overseas without warrants.
At the time, Comey was in charge of the Justice Department because Ashcroft was seriously ill.
However, the White House meeting appears on a list of briefings about the terrorist surveillance program provided to Congress by National Intelligence Director John Negroponte in 2006.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Wednesday night that while he was aware of the Negroponte memo, Gonzales "stands by his testimony."
According to the list compiled by Negroponte's office, other attendees at the meeting included then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, along with Nancy Pelosi, who was then minority leader in the House and is now speaker. The intelligence committee members included Reps. Porter Goss and Jane Harman and Sens. Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller.
President Bush publicly revealed the terrorist surveillance program in December 2005, insisting that it was both legal and a necessary tool in the war on terror. But critics have denounced the surveillance as an assault on civil liberties and challenged its legality.
Gonzales said that after Comey objected to reauthorizing undisclosed "intelligence activity," House and Senate leaders from both parties, as well as members of each chamber's intelligence committee, were summoned to the White House for a meeting in the situation room.
"We informed the leadership that Mr. Comey felt the president did not have the authority to authorize these activities, and we were there asking for help, to ask for emergency legislation," Gonzales said.
At the meeting, a consensus developed that "it would be very, very difficult to obtain legislation without compromising this program, but that we should look for a way ahead," he said.
So that evening, Gonzales said he and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card visited Ashcroft in the hospital because "we felt it important that the attorney general knew about the views and the recommendations of the congressional leadership."
Comey, who was in the hospital room that night, previously testified that he thought Card and Gonzales were trying to "take advantage" of an ill Ashcroft. However, Ashcroft refused to overrule Comey's decision.
Pressed by clearly skeptical senators Tuesday, Gonzales asserted several times that the dispute that led to the congressional meeting and the trip to Ashcroft's hospital bed was not over the terrorist surveillance program.
"The disagreement that occurred, and the reason for the visit to the hospital ... was about other intelligence activities. It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people," Gonzales said.
"Mr. Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?" replied Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee's ranking Republican.
Gonzales' veracity during previous testimony has been called into question by senators, particularly his assertion that there was no internal dissent within the Justice Department over reauthorizing the terrorist surveillance program. Comey testified some top-ranking officials were prepared to resign over the dispute.
Gonzales sought to bolster the credibility of his previous testimony Tuesday by asserting that Comey's objections dealt with other intelligence activities. But because those activities are highly classified, it is impossible to know what they were or what, if any, relationship they might have to the terrorist surveillance program.
- CNN's Terry Frieden and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.