WASHINGTON — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales must quickly clarify apparent contradictions in his testimony about warrantless spying or risk a possible perjury investigation, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Sunday.
"This is going to have a devastating effect on law enforcement throughout the country if it's not cleared up," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
"If he doesn't correct it, then I think that there are so many errors in there that the pressure will lead very, very heavily to whether it's a special prosecutor, a special counsel, efforts within the Congress."
Leahy also said he was ready to work with the Bush administration to modernize a law that governs how intelligence agencies monitor the communications of suspected terrorists.
President Bush used his weekly radio address Saturday to urge Congress to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 so the law can better keep pace with the latest technology used by terrorists.
Democrats have indicated they do not want to rush ahead with any changes, seeking to ensure civil liberties are protected and the executive branch is not granted unfettered surveillance powers. But the Bush administration says its latest request is narrowly drawn and urgently needed to stymie terrorist threats.
"The proposal would make clear that court orders are not necessary to effectively collect foreign intelligence about foreign targets overseas," the national intelligence director, Mike McConnell, wrote congressional leaders Friday. He urged action before Congress departs on a monthlong summer vacation in early August.
Last week, four Democrats on Leahy's committee asked Solicitor General Paul Clement for the special probe of Gonzales. The request came after FBI Director Robert S. Mueller appeared to contradict Gonzales' statements to Congress about internal administration dissent over the president's secretive wiretapping program.
Gonzales told that committee the program was not at issue when then-White House counsel Gonzales made a dramatic visit to Attorney General John Ashcroft's hospital room in 2004. Mueller, before the House Judiciary Committee, said it was.
The apparent contradiction only compounded problems for Gonzales, who is losing support among members of both parties even as he retains Bush's. The nation's top law enforcement official has faced growing questions about his credibility and apparent misstatements since Congress began investigating the firings of federal prosecutors seven months ago.
On Sunday, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the top Republican on Leahy's committee, made clear that he believed the Justice Department would be better off without Gonzales. But he said it would be premature to begin a perjury investigation until the committee could find out the facts.
Specter noted that he and Leahy had not yet been fully briefed on the administration's classified spy programs and thus could not determine whether it was true, as the White House has asserted, that the hospital dispute did not center on the surveillance program but a separate facet that remains classified.
The New York Times, citing anonymous government officials it declined to name, reported Sunday that the 2004 dispute was over computer searches through massive electronic databases, which contain records of phone calls and e-mail messages of millions of Americans.
If the dispute chiefly involved data mining rather than eavesdropping, that raised the question as to whether Gonzales might be technically correct, according to the report.
"So let's give him a chance," said Specter, who said he will be briefed on the classified programs Monday. "The Judiciary Committee is not in the business of setting up perjury prosecutions."
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., one of the senators who has called for the perjury investigation, said even if the latest contradiction was over a more technical point, it still warranted a special review.
"The truth is that the attorney general, in my view, has at least lied to Congress and may have committed perjury, and I think we need to have somebody who's able to look at both the classified and nonclassified material in a way that he can actually determine whether or not criminal charges have to be pursued," Feingold said.
Leahy declined to say whether he would support a special investigation should Gonzales fail to correct his testimony in a meaningful way. He said he would discuss the matter with Specter in hopes of achieving a bipartisan approach.
"He has a week," said Leahy, referring to Gonzales. "But you have to follow the law. I have to follow the law. They should have to follow the law. That's the bottom line."
Leahy sent a letter to Gonzales last Thursday giving him a week to resolve any inconsistencies in his testimony.
Leahy and Specter appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation," and Feingold spoke on "Fox News Sunday."