Embattled Attorney General Gonzales Testifies

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is expected to answer questions about his role in the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors. Those dismissals have been criticized for being politically motivated. Slate magazine's Dahlia Lithwick speaks with Madeleine Brand about Gonzales' testimony.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, the video rants of the Virginia Tech killer - was it right for NBC to air them? First, Madeleine, there was some, kind of, good news today for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

BRAND: He's testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, finally explaining the decision to fire eight federal prosecutors. So where's the good news there?

CHADWICK: They did not explicitly call him a liar. They came pretty close though.

BRAND: Okay. Sort of a dubious silver lining. Dahlia Lithwick is covering the hearings for the online magazine Slate and for us here at DAY TO DAY. She's just stepped out of those hearings to talk with us. Hi, Dahlia.

Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Senior Editor, Slate.com): Hi Madeleine. Hi Alex.

BRAND: Well, let's listen to some of the grilling Gonzales received from Republican Arlen Specter. Here is Specter asking the attorney general about, well, how he prepares for news conferences, his recent ones, where Gonzales defended himself against charges of the - that the firings of the federal prosecutors were politically motivated.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): Do you prepare for all your press conferences? Were you prepared for the press conference where you said there weren't any discussions involving you?

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Attorney General): Senator, I have already said that I misspoke. It was my mistake.

Senator SPECTER: Were you, I'm asking you, were you prepared? You interjected that you're always prepared. Were you prepared for that press conference?

Mr. GONZALES: Senator, I didn't say that I was always prepared. I said I prepared for every hearing.

Senator SPECTER: Well, then I'm asking you, do you prepare for you press conferences?

Mr. GONZALES: Senator, we do take time to try to prepare for the press conference.

BRAND: So this is a Republican, Dahlia, grilling Gonzales. How did he stand up to a morning of that kind of treatment?

Ms. LITHWICK: It was such an interesting difference, Madeleine, in tone between what we saw from Kyle Sampson, who you'll remember used to be Alberto Gonzales's chief of staff, who testified last month. Sampson, you know, was so somber, so repentant that toward the end of his testimony, you know, if I had to do it again, I would do things different. Just couldn't have been more sort of beaten down by the committee.

Gonzales, as you could hear, very, very willing to go to the mat, just pushing back, pushing back. There were several testy, terse exchanges like that today. You know, he just is not going to give an inch and, you know, those kinds of cutting each other off and sort of almost shouting at each other was really sort of a pervasive theme this morning.

BRAND: But Dahlia, the attorney general did say, look there are three things that have happened in this that I take responsibility for and I should take -what is he talking about here?

Ms. LITHWICK: Well, the first is what he sort of called the situation or the process. He said that was mishandled. These all should have been done in a different way. That's one. The second thing he takes responsibility for is what he called his misstatements. So you know, where he said in that press conference - I didn't see any memos, I wasn't involved in discussions. Now he says, you know, that wasn't true, those misstatements were mine only, I take responsibility.

And then he says, look, I was only a very limited, limited participant in these activities. I was a very hands-off person. But to the extent that I was very, very sort of remote and attenuated my involvement, I do think that decision to do this was a right one. I wouldn't have done it anything different. So it's a sort of a slight kind of distancing and yet accepting responsibility at the same time.

CHADWICK: Yeah. And members of the committee had some problems with that, trying to conflate those two things. Here is Senator Kennedy on the question of are you overseeing this process or are you disengaged from it?.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Since you apparently knew very little about the performance of the replaced U.S. attorneys, how can you testify that the judgment ought to stand?

Mr. GONZALES: I think that's a fair...

Senator KENNEDY: What's the basis for that?

Mr. GONZALES: I think that's a fair question, Senator.

BRAND: So what was the answer for that one, Dahlia?

Ms. LITHWICK: Well, he's kind of being a little tricky. Gonzales sort of takes two tacks here. One is that he says, look, I had two totally different roles. On the one hand, I have this sort of ongoing supervisory role of the Justice Department, so I'm there to hear a complaints. You know, if people have complaints about David Iglesias, I'm here to hear them. So I kept up with those things. I knew these people's failings. But that, he says, is totally separate from a different thing, which is what he calls Kyle Sampson's project. He tasked Kyle Sampson, his deputy, with the job of, you know, arranging these hirings and firings and culling information. So he says essentially I wear two different hats, so I sort of knew this stuff, but I wasn't involved in the sort of outgoing decision about who of them to fire.

And if that's not confusing enough, he has a second line of defense, which is that he says - and we heard that over and over again, the language of Sampson was just, quote, "collecting concerns" from the senior leadership in the department. This was, quote, "the consensus judgment" of the senior leadership in the department.

So you'll remember that Kyle Sampson sort of referred to himself over and over in his hearings as the aggregator of information. Well, essentially we're hearing that again today. These nameless, faceless senior leadership were in fact making the decisions, not Kyle Sampson and not him.

BRAND: And Dahlia, I guess cutting to the meat of it all, and in the spirit of not mincing words, here is Senator Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, asking the attorney general, well, why should he keep job?

Senator HERBERT KOHL (Democrat, Wisconsin): Given the low morale, the history of mismanagement, the apparent lack of independence from the White House, and most importantly, the taint of politics trumping justice in your tenure, would you explain to the American people why it is so important that you should remain in this office?

BRAND: And here is part of how the attorney general responded.

Mr. GONZALES: I have to know in my heart that I can continue to be effective as the leader of this department. Sitting here today, I believe that I can. And every day I ask myself that question. Can I continue to be effective as leader of this department? The moment I believe I can no longer be effective, I will resign as attorney general.

BRAND: Dahlia, was that it, was that the extent of his response?

Ms. LITHWICK: It's a funny little paradox. You know, on the one hand he's saying of himself - look, I made mistakes, I take responsibility; but you know, we're doing good things here, so let's move on.

At the same time, though, he was absolutely painstaking today to criticize those fired attorneys general - U.S. attorneys, that ones that Kyle Sampson would not criticize for their mistakes. So it seemed like some people get a second chance at the Justice Department. Other folks not so much

CHADWICK: Okay, we got time for one more exchange here. This is the attorney general responding to Senator Dick Durbin, and then you'll hear him. And the attorney general is saying that criticism of the office should focus on his person, not the office itself. Here he is.

Mr. GONZALES: When there are attacks against the department, you're attacking the career professionals.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Mr. Gonzales, that is like saying if I disagree with the president's policy on the war, I'm attacking the soldiers.

Mr. GONZALES: What I'm saying is, you should attack me.

Sen. DURBIN: The fact of the matter is...

Mr. GONZALES: You should attack me.

Sen. DURBIN: Your conduct of this department - your conduct of this department has made it more difficult for these professionals to do their job effectively. And if you ignore that reality, then you cannot be effective as an attorney general.

Mr. GONZALES: Senator, I understand that, and I'm going to work at that. What I'm saying is, is that be careful about criticizing the department. Criticize me.

Sen. DURBIN: Mr. Gonzales, this testimony today is from you about your reputation. It is not about the reputation of the men and women working in these offices.

CHADWICK: Well, it sounds as though the attorney general got his wish. At least they seemed perfectly willing to offer all the criticism that they could.

Ms. LITHWICK: Yeah. No, it was a funny little moment and Durbin almost sort of leapt over onto the table to assault Gonzales for that one. So yeah, it was -that was definitely the tensest moment of the morning.

BRAND: So Dahlia, what does this mean for his career?

Ms. LITHWICK: Well, who knows, you know. We at Slate have been predicting for weeks that he was holding on by a thread and we've been wrong so far. So you know, in the end day, this is Gonzales's judgment to make, not the Senate's. So let's us see how he does today. Certainly the president has said that he wants to see what Gonzales has to say before this committee. Let see if it changes any minds.

BRAND: Dahlia, thank you.

Ms. LITHWICK: My pleasure.

BRAND: That's Dahlia Lithwick. She's legal analyst for us and for Slate.com.

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