WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales conceded yesterday that he used confusing language in describing national security efforts in recent Senate testimony.
His letter to Senate Judiciary Committee leaders stopped short of an apology as the Bush administration pushed to expand eavesdropping on suspected terrorists.
But in response, the committee's top Republican, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, joined Democrats in demanding that Gonzales submit to a court review before seeking to intercept messages between suspected foreign terrorists overseas without warrants.
The exchange marked the latest twist in a standoff between Congress and the administration over the beleaguered attorney general and his Justice Department.
Even as the administration sought to compromise with lawmakers over updating a 1978 surveillance law, the White House stood its ground against Congress on a separate matter. The White House invoked executive privilege in refusing to let two political aides testify in an inquiry about the Justice Department's firing of federal prosecutors.
That inquiry was the basis of what brought Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week when he repeatedly said a dramatic 2004 hospital room dispute between him and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was about "other intelligence activities" -- and not what has since become known as the Terrorist Surveillance Program.
In his two-page letter to the committee chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, Gonzales sought to clear up the confusion. "I am deeply concerned with suggestions that my testimony was misleading, and am determined to address any such impression," Gonzales wrote.
"I recognize that the use of the term 'Terrorist Surveillance Program' and my shorthand reference to the 'program' publicly 'described by the president' may have created confusion," Gonzales wrote.
Leahy was not swayed.
"The attorney general's legalistic explanation of his misleading testimony under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week is not what one should expect from the top law enforcement officer of the United States," Leahy said in a statement after receiving Gonzales'sletter.
Specter, too, said Gonzales misled the committee. But Specter said the attorney general's testimony did not amount to perjury; it was a crucial if reluctant vote of support. "I don't think he did try to provide frank answers," Specter said. "It was more than confusion, it was misleading."
Specter joined Democrats who agreed to give the government greater authority to spy on suspected foreign terrorists, but only temporarily and by limiting Gonzales's role in deciding how the power is used.