"Liar! Liar!" screamed onlookers as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"I don't trust you," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman, told the nation's top law enforcement official.
"Mr. Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?" an incredulous Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., shot back after a Gonzales explanation.
In a tense political drama - punctuated by boos and hisses from an audience filled with members of the liberal protest group Code Pink - the credibility and competence of the head of the Justice Department was challenged by senators, Democrats and Republicans alike. They suggested a special prosecutor should investigate and warned Gonzales to review his testimony carefully and submit corrections if warranted.
Leahy and Specter reiterated the questions they have put to Gonzales before, about the dismissals of the nine U.S. attorneys and about a late-night visit by Gonzales to the hospital bed of the ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004, when Gonzales was White House counsel.
Gonzales denied that he and then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card had gone to see Ashcroft to "take advantage of a very sick man," as Specter put it, and pressure him to recertify President Bush's domestic surveillance program.
Gonzales said the visit needed to be "put into context," that it was for the purpose of updating Ashcroft on congressional feelings about the surveillance program, and that "Andy Card and I didn't press him - we said, 'Thank you,' and we left."
Gonzales' account contrasted starkly with that of James Comey, Ashcroft's former deputy, who testified before the committee in May that he had been "very angry" because "I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man."
House Democrats, preparing for a vote today on contempt citations against Bush's chief of staff and former counsel, produced a report Tuesday that alleges specific ways that several administration officials may have broken the law during the multiple firings of U.S. attorneys. The report says that Congress' investigation raises "serious concerns" that senior White House and Justice Department aides, involved in the removal of nine U.S. attorneys, may have obstructed justice and violated U.S. statutes that protect civil service employees and prohibit political retaliation against government officials.
Information from New York Times and Washington Post was used.