WASHINGTON (AP) _ FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said Thursday the government's terrorist surveillance program was the topic of a 2004 hospital room dispute between top Bush administration officials, contradicting Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' sworn Senate testimony.
Mueller was not in the hospital room at the time of the dramatic March 10, 2004, confrontation between then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and presidential advisers Andy Card and Gonzales, who was then serving as White House counsel. Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee he arrived shortly after they left, and spoke with the ailing Ashcroft.
``Did you have an understanding that that the conversation was on TSP?'' asked Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. TSP stands for terrorist surveillance program.
``I had an understanding the discussion was on a NSA program, yes,'' Mueller answered.
Jackson asked again: ``We use 'TSP,' we use 'warrantless wiretapping,' so would I be comfortable in saying that those were the items that were part of the discussion?''
``The discussion was on a national NSA program that has been much discussed, yes,'' Mueller responded.
The NSA, or National Security Agency, runs the program that eavesdropped on terror suspects in the United States, without court approval, until last January, when the program was put under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
On Tuesday, Gonzales repeatedly and emphatically denied that the dispute was about the terrorist surveillance program.
Mueller also affirmed, under lawmakers' pointed questioning, that Ashcroft sided against the two White House officials and with then-Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey, who believed the eavesdropping program was illegal.
Mueller's testimony cast fresh doubt on Gonzales' credibility. Hours earlier, Senate Democrats called for a perjury investigation against Gonzales and subpoenaed top presidential aide Karl Rove in a deepening political and legal clash with the Bush administration.
``It has become apparent that the attorney general has provided at a minimum half-truths and misleading statements,'' four Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote in a letter to Solicitor General Paul Clement.
They dispatched the letter shortly before Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced the subpoena of Rove, the president's top political strategist, in remarks on the Senate floor. The White House has claimed executive privilege to block congressional demands for documents or testimony by some current and former presidential aides. President Bush, meanwhile, has continued to support Gonzales.
Democrats issued a list of examples of what one called Gonzales' ``lying'' before Congress.
``We have now reached a point where the accumulated evidence shows that political considerations factored into the unprecedented firing of at least nine United States attorneys last year,'' said Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In response, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, ``Every day congressional Democrats prove that they're more interested in headlines than doing the business Americans want them to do.''
The call for a perjury probe focuses on conflicts between testimony Gonzales gave the Judiciary Committee in two appearances, one last year and the other this week. That issue revolves around whether there was internal administration dissent over the president's warrantless wiretapping program.
Also at issue, Democrats say, is a conflict between Gonzales' testimony that he had not spoken with other witnesses about the firings and his former White House liaison's account of an ``uncomfortable'' conversation in which the attorney general reviewed his recollection of the events and asked her opinion.
``There's no wiggle room,'' said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the four lawmakers to sign the letter. ``It's not misleading. Those are deceiving. Those are lying.''
And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters, ``I'm convinced that he's not telling the truth,'' based on conversations with Democrats on the Judiciary Committee.
As for the firing of the prosecutors, e-mails released by the Justice Department show Gonzales' aides conferred with Rove on the matter.
Leahy also said he was issuing a subpoena for J. Scott Jennings, a White House political aide. The deadline for compliance by Rove and him was set for Aug. 2.
``For over four months, I have exhausted every avenue seeking the voluntary cooperation of Karl Rove and J. Scott Jennings, but to no avail,'' the Vermont lawmaker said. ``They and the White House have stonewalled every request. Indeed, the White House is choosing to withhold documents and is instructing witnesses who are former officials to refuse to answer questions and provide relevant information and documents.''
The call for a perjury investigation marked yet another complication for Gonzales, whose fitness to serve has been criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike.
In a separate letter Thursday to Gonzales, Leahy said he would give the attorney general eight days to correct, clarify or otherwise change his testimony ``so that, consistent with your oath, they are the whole truth.''
In their letter to Solicitor General Paul Clement, the four senators wrote that Gonzales' testimony last year that there had been no internal dissent over the president's wiretapping program conflicted with Comey's testimony and with Gonzales' own statements this week before the Judiciary Committee.
They also said Gonzales falsely told the panel that he had not talked about the firings with other Justice Department officials. His former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, told the House Judiciary Committee under a grant of immunity that she had an ``uncomfortable'' conversation with Gonzales in which he outlined his recollection of what happened and asked her for her reaction.
Clement would decide whether to appoint a special prosecutor because Gonzales and outgoing Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty have recused themselves from the investigation that involves them. The Justice Department's No. 3 official, Associate Attorney General William Mercer, is serving only in an acting capacity and therefore does not have the authority.
At issue is what was discussed at a March 10, 2004, congressional briefing. A letter from then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said the briefing concerned the administration's terrorist surveillance program on the eve of its expiration.
Gonzales, at Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, testified that the issue at hand was not about the terrorist surveillance program. Instead, he said, the emergency meetings on March 10, 2004, had focused on an intelligence program that he would not describe. He said the meeting prompted him to go to Ashcroft's bedside to recertify the surveillance program, but he denied pressuring Ashcroft to do so. Ashcroft, recovering from gall bladder surgery, refused.