The rhetoric was high this morning at the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on oversight at the Department of Justice. In his opening statement chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., did not mince words: "The attorney general [has] lost the confidence of the Congress and the American people."
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales leaned forward to listen, his lips pursed into a frown, and crossed and recrossed his arms on the table before him, as Leahy read the charges against him: allowing his subordinates to make personnel decisions based on political considerations; bullying a bed-ridden John Ashcroft into signing off on a controversial domestic spying program; lying about violations of the Patriot Act; being an "enabler for this administration."
When it was Gonzales' turn to speak, he did not address the ongoing U.S. attorneys scandal, nor the rash of resignations within his department, nor the recently revealed violations of the Patriot Act by the administration. Instead, he praised the "100,000 dedicated public servants" working in the Justice Department and urged Congress to update the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court.
SPECTER: Mr. Attorney General, do you think constitutional government in the United States can survive if the president has the unilateral authority to reject congressional inquiries on grounds of executive privilege and the president then acts to bar the Congress from getting a judicial determination as to whether that executive privilege is properly invoked?
GONZALES: Senator, you're asking me a question that is related to an ongoing controversy which I am recused -- I will say the president's tried very hard ...
SPECTER: Oh, no, no. I'm not asking you a question about something you're recused. I'm asking you a question about constitutional law.
GONZALES: You're asking me a question that's related to an ongoing controversy.
SPECTER: I'm asking you whether you can have a constitutional government with the Congress exercising its constitutional authority for oversight if when the president claims executive privilege, the president then forecloses the Congress from getting a judicial determination of it. That's a constitutional law question.
GONZALES: Senator, both the Congress and the president have constitutional authorities. Sometimes they clash. In most cases, accommodations are reached. In very rare instances, they sometimes litigate it in the courts.
SPECTER: Would you focus on my question for just a minute, please?
GONZALES: Senator, I'm not going to answer this question, because it does relate to an ongoing controversy in which I am recused.
Gonzales' final refusal prompted a low groan from the gallery.
"We'll have decorum here," said Leahy.
But Specter was clearly perturbed. He shuffled some papers around and grumbled, "I'm not going to pursue that question, Mr. Attorney General, because I see it's hopeless."