Someone once noted that watching members of Congress question Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was a little like watching the clubbing of a baby seal. On Tuesday, however, it was worse than that: the nation's top law-enforcement official handed out baseball bats before taking the inevitable punishments.
Gonzales declined to answer a number of lawmakers' queries simply because they were part of a continuing "controversy"--a new dodge in the oversight wars between Congress and the White House. He said he did not know how a number of new Justice Department procedures had come to be changed, even when he had personally approved them.
Most curious was the way he seemed to revise his explanation for his March 2004 hospital visit to ask then Attorney General John Ashcroft to reauthorize a domestic surveillance program that was secret at the time. Gonzales and another White House official made the bedside visit because Ashcroft's deputy, Jim Comey, who was acting as Attorney General while Ashcroft was under medical sedation, refused to continue the wiretapping program. Gonzales declined to say who sent him on the mission and denied that he was trying to pull an end run on Comey. Instead, he suggested, he approached Ashcroft because a group of eight bipartisan lawmakers had earlier in the day urged the program's continuation.
Some explanations produced groans in the hearing room; others begged credulity. Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, wrapped up his questioning of Gonzales by dropping a strong hint that lawmakers might seek a special prosecutor--someone independent of Gonzales and the White House--to look into the sudden firing of U.S. Attorneys last year. Which may mean Gonzales' time under fire will not be over soon.