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Former U.S. official: Gonzales 'splitting hairs' in testimony

  • Story Highlights
  • Former official: Surveillance program dispute centered on data mining
  • Sen. Feingold: Prosecutor should decide if "criminal charges have to be pursued"
  • Prominent lawmakers from both parties continue to call for Gonzales' ouster
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A dispute within the Bush administration in 2004 over a secret surveillance program centered on data mining, not eavesdropping, a former government official told CNN Sunday.

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U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before Congress last Tuesday.

The distinction, first reported by the New York Times Sunday, is critical because it will likely be at the heart of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' defense against allegations by Democrats that he committed perjury in sworn Senate testimony about the controversy.

Gonzales testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week there was no domestic surveillance -- something President Bush reiterated to the nation in late 2005.

At that time, the president acknowledged the National Security Agency had been conducting eavesdropping without warrants, but stopped short of acknowledging searches through databases of information picked up by the surveillance. The president has still not acknowledged the details of these kinds of searches.

The former government official who spoke to CNN about Gonzales Sunday said there had been a legal concern in 2004 about the data mining that led some officials, including then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey, to threaten to resign from the administration in protest.

Since that controversy was technically about the data mining, however, Gonzales could claim there was not an internal argument about the surveillance itself. Video See how Gonzales might use the distinction to defend himself. »

"The attorney general may have been splitting hairs here," the former government official said. "He may be able to say 'the dispute' was not about the NSA monitoring program per se. But I would not have said what he said."

The data mining involved computer searches through electronic databases that identified the senders and recipients of millions of Americans' e-mails and phone calls, though not their contents.

Democrats charge the attorney general is making a distinction without an actual difference because the data mining and the surveillance both fall under the umbrella of the domestic surveillance program, which critics say stretches the limits of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

"The truth is that the attorney general, in my view, has at least lied to Congress and may have committed perjury," Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, said on "Fox News Sunday."

And prominent lawmakers from both parties persisted in calling for Gonzales' ouster.

"He doesn't have much credibility, and he would do us all a favor if he stepped down and allowed the president to select someone else," Republican Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays said on CNN's "Late Edition."

On Thursday, four Democratic senators called for a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate whether Gonzales committed perjury.

Bush has said he maintains faith in Gonzales, and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah predicted the attorney general will tough it out.

"I have a lot of respect for the man; he's willing to hang in there," Hatch told ABC's "This Week."

Last Tuesday, in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales said a late-night visit to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in his hospital room was not about the NSA surveillance program.

Rather, Gonzales said, it was about "a very important intelligence activity," which he would not detail.

"The disagreement that occurred, and the reason for the visit to the hospital ... was about other intelligence activities," Gonzales said. "It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people."

However, FBI head Robert Mueller contradicted Gonzales. Mueller testified Thursday that Ashcroft told him the Gonzales meeting had indeed dealt with the "NSA program that has been much discussed."

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said, "I think a lot of us, Republicans and Democrats, were incredulous at some of the answers" Gonzales has given the committee.

"I told him, frankly, I don't trust him," Leahy told CBS' "Face the Nation."

The committee gave Gonzales a week to correct his testimony, said Leahy. "I'd suggest he consult with a lawyer as he does it."

The committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said Gonzales should step down.

"There's no doubt, as I have said repeatedly for months now, that the Department of Justice would be much better off without him," he said.

This latest chapter of trouble for Gonzales comes as the Bush administration is trying to speed through a "significantly narrowed" group of changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act before Congress leaves Washington for its August recess.

One of the changes would ensure U.S. authorities could intercept communications between suspected terrorists overseas without a warrant when those communications -- due to modern technology -- may travel through a switch in the United States.

According to a letter obtained by CNN, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell informed House and Senate leaders Friday that the administration is willing to temporarily shelve the broader FISA reform plan it's been advocating for months. The goal would be to immediately push through a smaller package of changes that would "close the critical gaps in our intelligence capability in the short-term."

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The letter describes an "urgent" need for the intelligence community to provide warnings.

In his national radio address on Saturday, Bush pressed for Congress to approve changes the 1978 act. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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