After questioning Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' former chief of staff, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) says he believes Gonzales "likely knew about" a plan to use the USA Patriot Act to circumvent Senate confirmation of U.S. attorneys.
Specter questioned Kyle Sampson about that plan at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today, referring to e-mails "where Mr. Sampson's plan to use the Patriot Act circumvention is relied upon extensively," Specter told NPR's Robert Siegel.
Specter also pressed Sampson over contradictions between Gonzales' statement that he was not involved in firing eight U.S. attorneys — and Sampson's own e-mail describing a meeting on the subject which Gonzales attended.
The full text of the interview follows:
ROBERT SIEGEL: Well, now, Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Welcome to the program, Senator Specter.
SENATOR ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA): Thank you. Very nice to talk to you and your listeners. Thank you.
MR. SIEGEL: We just heard you pressing Kyle Sampson about whether the attorney general knew about or approved of a plan to possibly run out the clock by using the USA Patriot Act. Are you satisfied with the answer that you received to that question?
SEN. SPECTER: I believe that the e-mails and the other documents strongly raise the inference that the attorney general did know that there was a plan to appoint attorneys under the provisions of the Patriot Act, which circumvented confirmation by the Senate. There is language about the interim appointments, and that refers to the Patriot Act. And there are sequences where you have e-mails over a three-month period of time where Mr. Sampson's plan to use the Patriot Act circumvention is relied upon extensively. So the inference arises that in that time, the attorney general likely knew about it.
MR. SIEGEL: Well, some of your Democratic colleagues — several have called for the attorney general to resign. You said you wanted to hear more facts. Did you hear enough facts today to settle that question in your mind?
SEN. SPECTER: The facts that I want to hear are from the attorney general himself. I think that we need to hear his testimony under oath. We have what he said at news conferences and what he is quoted as saying in the newspapers, but I'm not prepared to make a judgment; I don't think it's fair to make a judgment on that alone. He is scheduled to come before the Judiciary Committee, and I think we ought to let him have his day in court, hear him out, and then come to an informed judgment.
MR. SIEGEL: You confronted Mr. Sampson, who was the attorney general's chief of staff. Would the contradiction between what Attorney General Gonzales had said in March, that he wasn't at all involved in firing the U.S. attorneys, and then the e-mails – are you inclined to be charitable and write off that contradiction to a faulty memory, or do you think the attorney general was trying to mislead the public in a news conference?
SEN. SPECTER: I'm not inclined to be charitable; I'm inclined to be factual. The key point was that in his March 13th news conference, the attorney general said he wasn't involved in discussions. And there is an e-mail on November 27th last year which suggests that the attorney general was involved in a meeting on November 20th where there presumably were discussions. And I think that the attorney general has to explain that, and, candidly, he has got a lot of explaining to do, but I think he ought to have the opportunity to do that before we come to a judgment.
MR. SIEGEL: You have been overseeing the Department of Justice for many years from your seat on that committee. Is the picture that you're getting of Attorney General Gonzales's stewardship of justice typical or unusually disengaged from, say, the decision of dismissing U.S. attorneys?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, I'm going to deal with Attorney General Gonzales. If you start to compare him to other attorney generals, there are lots of problems in the past that you can cite. But we have enough on our hands to figure out what happened with the U.S. attorneys here, and we have also got these national security letters, which is before the committee now.
We had FBI Director Mueller in earlier this week, and we found that the FBI abused the national security letters, did not have sufficient factual basis to have an issue, relied on what was called exigent circumstances emergency and didn't back them up, and the attorney general is responsible for that as well.
So I want to hear him out on these two big issues, as I say, before I make up my own mind.
MR. SIEGEL: But just a last point. On the issue of the U.S. attorneys, is the attorney general in a no-win situation where the best he can say is, I really wasn't very much involved in what we were doing at the Department of Justice.
SEN. SPECTER: Well, let's hear – let's hear what he has to say. Let's hear who made the judgment to ask these U.S. attorneys to resign. Now we have a factual record from Kyle Sampson. I want a factual record for Alberto Gonzales, and if they have done something wrong, I'll be the first to say so.
MR. SIEGEL: Well, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, thank you very much for talking with us.
SEN. SPECTER: Always glad to be with you. Thank you.
Transcript by Federal News Service, Washington, D.C.