President Bush often insists he has to be the decider - ignoring Congress and the public when it comes to the tough matters on war, terrorism and torture, even deciding whether an ordinary man in Florida should be allowed to let his wife die with dignity. Apparently that burden does not apply to the functioning of one of the most vital government agencies, the Justice Department.
Americans have been waiting months for Mr. Bush to fire Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who long ago proved that he was incompetent and more recently has proved that he can't tell the truth. Mr. Bush refused to fire him after it was clear Mr. Gonzales lied about his role in the political purge of nine federal prosecutors. And he is still refusing to do so - even after testimony by the F.B.I. director, Robert Mueller, that suggests that Mr. Gonzales either lied to Congress about Mr. Bush's warrantless wiretapping operation or at the very least twisted the truth so badly that it amounts to the same thing.
Mr. Gonzales has now told Congress twice that there was no dissent in the government about Mr. Bush's decision to authorize the National Security Agency to spy on Americans' international calls and e-mails without obtaining the legally required warrant. Mr. Mueller and James Comey, a former deputy attorney general, say that is not true. Not only was there disagreement, but they also say that they almost resigned over the dispute.
Both men say that in March 2004 - when Mr. Gonzales was still the White House counsel - the Justice Department refused to endorse a continuation of the wiretapping program because it was illegal. (Mr. Comey was running the department temporarily because Attorney General John Ashcroft had emergency surgery.) Unwilling to accept that conclusion, Vice President Dick Cheney sent Mr. Gonzales and another official to Mr. Ashcroft's hospital room to get him to approve the wiretapping.
Mr. Comey and Mr. Mueller intercepted the White House team, and they say they watched as a groggy Mr. Ashcroft refused to sign off on the wiretapping and told the White House officials to leave. Mr. Comey said the White House later modified the eavesdropping program enough for the Justice Department to sign off.
Last week, Mr. Gonzales denied that account. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee the dispute was not about the wiretapping operation but was over "other intelligence activities." He declined to say what those were.
Lawmakers who have been briefed on the administration's activities said the dispute was about the one eavesdropping program that has been disclosed. So did Mr. Comey. And so did Mr. Mueller, most recently on Thursday in a House hearing. He said he had kept notes.
That was plain enough. It confirmed what most people long ago concluded: that Mr. Gonzales is more concerned about doing political-damage control for Mr. Bush - in this case insisting that there was never a Justice Department objection to a clearly illegal program - than in doing his duty. But the White House continued to defend him.
As far as we can tell, there are three possible explanations for Mr. Gonzales's talk about a dispute over other - unspecified - intelligence activities. One, he lied to Congress. Two, he used a bureaucratic dodge to mislead lawmakers and the public: the spying program was modified after Mr. Ashcroft refused to endorse it, which made it "different" from the one Mr. Bush has acknowledged. The third is that there was more wiretapping than has been disclosed, perhaps even purely domestic wiretapping, and Mr. Gonzales is helping Mr. Bush cover it up.
Democratic lawmakers are asking for a special prosecutor to look into Mr. Gonzales's words and deeds. Solicitor General Paul Clement has a last chance to show that the Justice Department is still minimally functional by fulfilling that request.
If that does not happen, Congress should impeach Mr. Gonzales.
© 2007 The New York Times