Senate Panel Set to Hear from Gonzales
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Today could be the most important day in Alberto Gonzales's career. The attorney general will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in a long-awaited hearing about the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.
NPR's Ari Shapiro is covering that story. And Ari, set the scene for us. Why is this hearing so vital?
ARI SHAPIRO: Well, the last time Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified about these dismissals was three months ago. And back then this was really a relatively minor story. People were not paying a lot of attention to it. And the attorney general said a lot of things that since then have been contradicted by documents and testimony, things like I had no intention of going around a provision in the Patriot Act to avoid Senate confirmation for replacement U.S. attorneys; things like politics had nothing to do with the firings, and so on. Those are paraphrases, of course.
But even his supporters say that since then there have been so many contradictions that he needs to sort this out. And this is his biggest chance -his really first chance in three months to tell Congress directly, personally, what happened, why these people were fired, and why the last three months of statements about it have been so confusing.
The Justice Department is trying to lower expectations for this hearing. They have said that it's false description to call it a make or break testimony, but nobody is denying that this is very, very important for him.
MONTAGNE: So it seem he would have a fair amount of explaining to do. What the lawmakers want to hear from him today?
SHAPIRO: Well, they want to know specifically why each of the eight U.S. attorneys was dismissed. They're saying it's not enough to say that none of them were dismissed for improper political reasons. They want to know about each and every one of them. Especially one in particular. David Iglesias was the U.S. attorney in New Mexico. We now know that his name was added to the list of U.S. attorneys to be dismissed just weeks before the firings took place, and it happened after the New Mexico Republican senator, Senator Pete Domenici, called the White House and the Justice Department to complain about Iglesias.
We now know that there was some kind concerns that Iglesias was not indicting Democrats before this contentious November election. That's something that senators on the committee are going to want to know a lot about at the hearing today.
They'll also want to know about the White House role. I mean, you know, we've been seeing lots and lots of documents coming down, and lots of interviews with officials, but these are all documents and interviews from Justice Department officials. Right now the White House is a great big question mark. And the senators want to know about what political advisor Karl Rove did, what his role was in the dismissals, what White House counsel Harriet Miers may have done. We know they had a role. We don't know what specifically their role was. That's something senators are going to ask a lot of questions about today.
MONTAGNE: And the Justice Department released the attorney general's opening statement already over the weekend. Did that answer any of those questions?
SHAPIRO: Not specifically. It was pretty thin on specifics. The statement was sort of one-half apology and one-half defense. He says he understands that this was mishandled, but he vehemently denies that anything improper took place. He says he should had been more personally involved in the firings, but he has no reason to believe that anybody was dismissed to prevent a prosecution of a Republican or to punish them for not prosecuting a Democrat. That said, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee say if he wants to answer specific questions in response to questions from us, that's fine, but we're going to need more detail than that which is in his opening statement that he's given to us already.
MONTAGNE: The House is also pursuing an investigation, and here's something you can tell us about. Yesterday it postponed a key vote on securing testimony from Monica Goodling. Now, she used to be a senior counselor to the attorney general.
SHAPIRO: Right, she was senior counselor and liaison to the White House. So she is a key person in this whole issue. She is at the center of the Justice Department/White House connection. She invoked her 5th Amendment right not to testify about the firings, but the House Judiciary Committee is going to vote on whether or not to grant her immunity. And if they grant her immunity, she can't invoke her 5th Amendment right; she has to come testify. They postponed that vote for a week. So next week we'll know for sure whether they're going to grant her immunity and whether Monica Goodling will testify before the House Judiciary Committee despite her expressed desire not to do so.
MONTAGNE: NPR justice reporter Ari Shapiro, thanks very much.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: And you can read up on some of the Bush administration officials involved in the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys at npr.org.