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GOP's Hagel joins calls for Gonzales' resignation

Story Highlights

• GOP senator: Gonzales can't meet standard of "honesty and capability"
• White House: President "still has full confidence in Alberto Gonzales"
• Ashcroft aide: White House pressed hospitalized AG to OK plan
• Democratic senators ask Gonzales: Do you wish to revise testimony?
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska joined calls for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign Wednesday, while Democrats questioned whether Gonzales had misled a Senate committee about the administration's no-warrant eavesdropping.

The latest complaints about Gonzales follow testimony by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey on Tuesday. Comey, the No. 2 official at Justice until 2005, said Gonzales tried to get his ailing predecessor, John Ashcroft, to sign off on the surveillance program from his hospital bed after Comey raised questions about the program.

Comey expressed concern to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Gonzales, then White House counsel, and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card were trying "to take advantage of a very sick man" by going to Ashcroft. (Watch Comey recall the worst night of his life Video)

In a written statement Wednesday, Hagel -- who is considering a run for president -- said the "honesty and capability" of the attorney general must be unquestioned, and that Gonzales "can no longer meet this standard."

"He has failed this country. He has lost the moral authority to lead," Hagel said.

The White House has stood behind Gonzales, who began working for Bush while the president was governor of Texas in the 1990s. White House spokesman Tony Snow disagreed with Hagel's assessment of the attorney general and said Gonzales retains Bush's support.

"Jim Comey gave his side of what transpired that day," Snow said. "The president still has full confidence in Alberto Gonzales."

Hagel has been increasingly estranged from the Bush administration, even raising the prospect of Bush's impeachment over the war in Iraq during an interview in April's Esquire magazine.

But several other Republican lawmakers -- including Sens. John McCain of Arizona, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- have called for Gonzales to resign over the firings of at least eight U.S. attorneys last year.

Another Republican, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, suggested to The Associated Press on Wednesday that Gonzales should consider stepping down: "When you have to spend more time up here on Capitol Hill instead of running the Justice Department, maybe you ought to think about it."

Gonzales has said he wants to put the controversy behind him, but congressional investigators say the basic question behind the firings -- who decided which prosecutors to fire and why -- have yet to be answered.

The Justice Department on Wednesday told an angry Senate Judiciary Committee chairman it does not have documents described in a subpoena that demands all materials relating to White House political adviser Karl Rove's possible involvement in the U.S. attorney firings.

Instead, it said, Rove's lawyer must have them.

The response from a top Justice Department official came just hours after the chairman, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and the panel's top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chastised Gonzales in a letter for ignoring the subpoena's Tuesday deadline. (Read more about the attorney firings)

Democrats question testimony

Also Wednesday, several Democrats on the Judiciary Committee questioned whether Gonzales stood by his February 2006 testimony about the surveillance program in light of Comey's testimony.

Gonzales told the committee at that time that there was no "serious disagreement" within the administration about the program, and that the only objections "dealt with operational capabilities."

Gonzales later repeated his characterization to the House Judiciary Committee, telling its members that "the disagreement that existed does not relate to the program the president confirmed in December to the American people."

But Comey said he and Ashcroft had decided against certifying the program's legality after a Justice Department review. He said Tuesday that Ashcroft refused to overrule his objections when Gonzales and Card tried to lobby Ashcroft, who had handed over power to Comey while recovering from gallbladder surgery in March 2004.

One of Gonzales' leading critics, Sen. Chuck Schumer, asked Gonzales about reports that Comey had objected to the program when Gonzales went before the committee in 2006.

Following Comey's testimony, Schumer and three other senators asked Gonzales in a letter whether he stood by his previous testimony, "or do you wish to revise it?"

Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Comey's account "calls into question just about everything that happened -- and it certainly calls into question how anyone with a straight face could say he should remain as attorney general."

Gonzales' testimony defended

The Justice Department on Wednesday defended Gonzales' testimony, saying Gonzales had acknowledged "disagreements about other intelligence activities."

"The attorney general's testimony on these points was and remains accurate," Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said in a written statement.

"While the attorney general provided this testimony in an unclassified setting, it is important to consider that the fact and nature of such disagreements have been briefed to the intelligence committees."

Under the eavesdropping program, Bush in 2001 gave the National Security Agency the power to listen in on communications of people in the United States suspected of having connections to terrorists overseas without a judge's approval.

After the program came to light in December 2006, critics said that it violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which established a panel of judges to hear wiretap requests in secret.

The White House, which had argued that Bush had the constitutional authority to take such action to protect national security, announced in January that it would begin seeking the FISA court's permission in such cases.

Comey testified that in Ashcroft's hospital room, Ashcroft "very strongly" expressed his own problems with the program and referred the White House officials back to Comey, who was acting attorney general. Comey said Card and Gonzales then left the hospital room without acknowledging him.

Comey said he considered resigning after the surveillance program was reauthorized the next day without a Justice Department signature. But after meetings at the White House, Comey got the changes he wanted to the program to gain Justice Department certification.

Comey resigned in 2005, after Gonzales replaced Ashcroft.


GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel is considering a run for president, with a third-party candidacy possible.



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