Gonzales Defends Attorney Firings to Skeptical Senate

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tells the Senate Judiciary Committee he mishandled the firings of eight federal prosecutors, but insists that his conduct was not improper. His explanations didn't go over well with the committee.

Senators Renew Bipartisan Call for Gonzales to Go

In Depth

What to Expect from the Hearings: The Senate Judiciary Committee wants to know what role Gonzales played in the dismissals – and who in the White House was involved. Read an overview of the issues likely to come up.

Administration Officials Involved: Find out which officials in the Bush administration played a role in the dismissals.

Timeline — Anatomy of the Firings: The Bush administration fired seven U.S. attorneys on a single day last December. After Democrats took control of both chambers of Congress in January, they began hearings into whether those dismissals — as well as an earlier one in June 2006 — were politically motivated. Political furor has ensued. Follow events so far.

Fired U.S. Attorneys — Who's Who: A look at the federal prosecutors whose dismissals are at the center of the scandal, and the reasons given for their dismissal.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced renewed calls for his resignation Thursday during a contentious daylong hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. After lengthy questioning about what led to the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year, both Democrats and Republicans said they had lost confidence in the attorney general and his handling of the department.

"The best way to put this behind us is your resignation," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) said.

Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) complained at the hearing's end that they still did not know – after hours of testimony – how the names of the attorneys had ended up on a list of those to be fired. Schumer said he counted close to 100 "I don't knows" or "I don't recalls" in Gonzales' answers.

The attorney general did not waiver from his defense of the firings, although he acknowledged that the matter could have been handled better. He said he took full responsibility for the fact that the firings had become an embarrassing public spectacle for the attorneys.

Gonzales said the decision to let the attorneys go was based on recommendations that he had received from the senior management of the Justice Department, and that there was no effort to interfere politically with ongoing prosecutions.

"I never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people," Gonzales said. But he acknowledged that he had made some misstatements and could have been more precise in his earlier explanations of what had occurred.

However, Gonzales was anything but precise in his testimony, clearly frustrating lawmakers. Gonzales continued to describe his role in the firings as limited, even though the committee has heard testimony from others that he had numerous conversations and meetings on the subject.

Lawmakers appeared incredulous at Gonzales' failure to recall many of those meetings and discussions.

At one point, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) noted Gonzales' statement that the firings were "justified and should stand," and then asked: "Well, since you apparently knew very little about the performance of the replaced U.S. attorneys, how can you testify that they — that the judgment ought to stand?"

Gonzales replied that he had seen nothing since the firings to change his mind.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called Gonzales' explanation for the firings — including that some of the attorneys had poor management skills — a stretch.

"It's clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or at the White House and, you know, we made up reasons to fire them. Some of it sounds good, some of it doesn't, and that's the lesson to be learned here," Graham said.

In his opening statement, ranking Republican Arlen Specter (PA) told Gonzales that he had "a heavy burden of proof to do three things."

"First, to reestablish your credibility; second, to justify the replacement of these United States attorneys; and third, to demonstrate that you can provide the leadership to the United States Department of Justice," Specter said.

As the hearing closed, Specter said that Gonzales had not met those tests. But the senator said he would not call for Gonzales to resign, because that was a matter between the attorney general and President Bush. Specter did say that Gonzales' characterization of his participation in the firings was "significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts."

That sentiment was echoed by Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who said the 137-year-old Justice Department was experiencing a "crisis of leadership." Leahy said evidence gathered by the committee, in testimony from other Justice Department officials and in thousands of pages of documents, contradicted Gonzales' statements.

Some of the former U.S. attorneys have testified that they believe they were dismissed as punishment for prosecuting Republicans or going too easy on Democrats. Administration officials have flatly denied those claims.

The hearing shed little light on the role of the White House in the firings. Gonzales acknowledged that he had a conversation with chief White House political adviser Karl Rove and President Bush about complaints that former U.S. attorney David Iglesias was not pursuing voter fraud cases more aggressively in New Mexico. But Gonzales said he did not know how and when Iglesias' name was added to the list of those recommended for firing, although he said he was not "surprised" to see the name there.

Throughout the hearing there were outbursts from spectators, including some who wore orange outfits with "Arrest Gonzales" written in duct tape on their backs.

The hearing had originally been scheduled for Tuesday, but was postponed after the killing of 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech. Several senators and Gonzales noted the tragedy in their opening remarks.

"Moments like these underscore my commitment to the mission of law enforcement, and the honor that I have to serve as the nation's chief law enforcement officer," Gonzales said.

But even supporters said Gonzales needed to address the many contradictions that had emerged since he last testified before Congress in January. For example, during his last appearance, Gonzales told the committee that he wanted all of the replacement U.S. attorneys to be confirmed by the Senate.

But Justice Department e-mails show that Kyle Sampson, who was then Gonzales' chief of staff, discussed using a provision in the Patriot Act reauthorization to avoid Senate confirmation for the new U.S. attorney in Arkansas. In one e-mail, Sampson wrote, "Our guy is in there, so the status quo is good for us. Pledge to desire a Senate confirmed U.S. Attorney, and otherwise hunker down."

On Thursday, Gonzales reiterated that he had opposed using the Patriot Act provision. But then senators questioned why he had allowed Sampson to go forward with a plan to use it when replacing the fired attorneys.

"Who's running the department?" Schumer asked.

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