Gonzales Spars with Senate Panel
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
At this hour, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is being grilled on Capitol Hill. Senators want to know about his role in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Here's an exchange with Republican Senator Arlen Specter.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Virginia): I'm asking you, were you prepared? You've interjected that you're always prepared. Were you prepared for that press conference?
Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Attorney General): Senator, I didn't say that I was always prepared. I said I prepared for every hearing.
Sen. SPECTER: Well, then I'm asking you, do you prepare for your press conferences?
Mr. GONZALES: Senator, we do take time to try prepare for the press conference.
Sen. SPECTER: And were you prepared when you said you weren't involved in any deliberations?
Mr. GONZALES: Senator, I've already conceded that I misspoke at that press conference.
MONTAGNE: That's Attorney General Alberto Gonzales being questioned by Senator Specter at a Judiciary Committee hearing.
NPR'S Brian Naylor has been listening in and he joins us now from the Capitol. And Bryan, set the scene for us. Why are people saying this is the most important day in the attorney general's career?
BRIAN NAYLOR: Well, Renee, as Senator Specter, who is the senior Republican on the panel, put it this morning in his opening statement, this is the attorney general's re-confirmation hearing. Senators from both parties have lost confidence in the attorney general because of his misstatements about his role in the firing of those attorneys last year. Democrats suspect many of the firings were due to political reasons, and White House documents show they were interested in keeping loyal Bushies in the jobs.
And the attorney general previously said he wasn't involved in the decisions to replace the attorneys, but the subsequent documents and testimony from his subordinates indicate that the attorney general was very involved, and the senators want to know basically why Gonzales tried to cover that up.
So you've got a very packed hearing room - reporters, photographers and members of the public. There are even a few people in the audience with arrest Gonzales written out on duct tape on their backs.
MONTAGNE: Well, that exchange where you just heard with a Republican senator was pretty testy. What are the most striking things you've heard so far from Gonzales and also from the senators?
NAYLOR: Right. At times it's been very contentious. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the committee, said that there is a growing scandal swirling around the dismissal of the prosecutors, and he said he hoped Gonzales's past failures to give a complete explanation of his role in the firings won't be continued today.
Specter said Gonzales comes to the hearing with a heavy burden of proof to re-establish his credibility, to justify the firings, and to demonstrate that he can provide leadership to the Department of Justice.
MONTAGNE: And what else do the senators want to know? Any specific facts or information?
NAYLOR: Well, they want to know the reasons why the eight U.S. attorneys were fired on a case-by-case basis. Of particular interest to Democrats is Carol Lam of California and David Iglesias of New Mexico, who both had political corruption cases going on in their offices. Iglesias came to the attention of Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, and Republican senator Pete Domenici from New Mexico. Both raised questions about why Iglesias's office wasn't doing more to go after some - a case involving some Democrats, and they raised these concerns with Gonzales. So they want to know how much Bush administration interest there was in this particular firing.
MONTAGNE: And just briefly, what's next?
NAYLOR: Well, we've got a number of different Congressional committees involved following different threads of this. There's an attempt to get the former attorney - the attorney general's former counsel in to provide immunity, who she's refused to testify so far about her role in this...
NAYLOR: ...citing her Fifth Amendments.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Brian Naylor, thank you very much.
NAYLOR: Thanks, Renee.