ALEX COHEN, host:
Joining us now for more on this story is legal analyst for Slate.com Dahlia Lithwick. Hi, Dahlia?
Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Slate): Yeah, I'm here.
COHEN: Great. Dahlia, let's start off with a little bit of a recap. How exactly did Alberto Gonzales get to this point? There was, first of all, the warrantless domestic surveillance program. Remind us a little bit of what happened with that.
Ms. LITHWICK: Sure. I think we have sort of a perfect storm of three different crises that all hit him. The first, as you say, was the NSA program. At a hearing in February of 2006, Senator Chuck Schumer asked Gonzales specifically whether there had been any serious disagreement within the administration about the NSA wiretapping program. And Gonzales unequivocally said there had been no disagreement about this program.
Well, subsequently, in the last couple of months, we've had former Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey come forward, FBI Chief Robert Mueller come forward, and say not only was there enormous disagreement about the program, but there was a mass threatened resignation over it. So then it forced Gonzales to sort of say, well, I didn't mean that program exactly. And it looked like he really had lied under oath.
COHEN: We have a clip here of some of the Senate testimony Alberto Gonzales gave last month. He was responding to allegations that he tried to get then Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was in the hospital at the time, to sign off on an extension of the wiretapping program. Let's take a listen.
Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Attorney General): The disagreement that occurred, and the reason for the visit to the hospital, Senator, was about other intelligence activities. It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people. Now, I would like the opportunity...
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?
COHEN: That last minute interruption there came from Senator Arlen Specter. Dahlia, what impact did this particular brouhaha have on Gonzales' ability to stay in office?
Ms. LITHWICK: Well, again, it simply forced him into the ugly position of having the parse words, of having to say, oh, when I said that program I meant another program, and there's this program that's separate from that program. And here you have Mueller pretty expressly contradicting all of that. I think in a core way, it really raised the question about whether he had been truthful with the Congress.
COHEN: Another element of this perfect storm you referred to was, of course, the firing of the U.S. attorneys. Dahlia, tell us a little bit about Alberto Gonzales' role in that.
Ms. LITHWICK: Well, his role is still unclear, Alex, although it's been a subject of six months of congressional examination. All we really know in effect is that nine U.S. attorneys, these are high level federal prosecutors, were fired for what appear to be, at least in most cases, very partisan, political, ideological reasons that have nothing to do with job performance. And then essentially we've been embroiled since then in six months of trying to determine what role the AG played in that. Did Gonzales direct it? Did he direct others to do it? What did he know about it? And he's been sort of, you know, shucking and jiving and sort of declining to take responsibilities, slightly changing his story, massively modifying his story.
And I think, again, it appears that though he's just not been truthful. I think had he come out and said, yes, I fired them, they sucked and here's why, it might've worked out better for him. But it's been a six month sort of endless discussion about what role he played, finger pointing in the department, that has just made him I think over the long haul look terrible.
COHEN: And that kind of shucking and jiving, as you said, frustrated senators on both sides of the aisle. We have another exchange here between Senator Arlen Specter and Attorney General Gonzales. This is from April. Let's take a listen.
Mr. GONZALES: I prepare for every hearing, Senator.
Sen. SPECTER: 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. GONZALES: Senator, I've already said that I misspoke. It was my mistake.
Sen. SPECTER: I'm asking you, were you prepared? You interjected that you're always prepared. Were you prepared for that press conference?
Mr. GONZALES: Sir, I didn't say that I was always prepared. I said I prepared for every hearing.
Sen. SPECTER: Well, and I'm asking you, do you prepare for your press conferences?
Mr. GONZALES: Senator, we do take time to try to 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. There was nothing intentional. And the truth of the matter is, Senator, I...
Sen. SPECTER: Let's move on. I don't think you're going to win a debate about your preparation, frankly.
COHEN: Okay, Dahlia. Now that we're on the topic of preparation, let's talk about what's going on today. Do you think that this is something that Alberto Gonzales prepared for? Why now? Why this decision at this particular moment?
LITHWICK: You know, that's the thing, Alex, that's got us tearing our hair out. A lot of folks, particularly at Slate, had been saying for months now, he's going to go tomorrow, he's going to go tomorrow. And I think he dodged for a long time. I think ultimately a couple of things served him. One, it's August, and he's a month past his last sort of brouhaha in the Congress. And it looks, at least, as though he made this decision himself. Nobody forced him out. And I think it does, particularly now that everybody's talking about Iraq and not his job, is a good moment to sort of duck for cover and hope he's not the front page story for a couple of days. But ultimately it's not clear. I think a lot of people were very surprised by this. Reports are that the Justice Department didn't see it coming.
So it's not clear why he picked today of all days. I think what is clear is that this was a long, long, long time coming. And it probably hasn't served Gonzales or the Bush administration to have such a protracted fight. It's been a real distraction. I think it's done real damage at the Justice Department.
COHEN: We just heard the president announce that Solicitor General Paul Clement will be temporarily replacing Alberto Gonzales. There's no official word yet on a long-term replacement, though. As we just heard, Dina Temple-Raston mentioned the name of Michael Chertoff, head of Homeland Security.
Regardless of who's chosen, do you have any sense, Dahlia, of how these confirmation hearings might go?
LITHWICK: I think it's fair to say, Alex, this will be a bruiser of a confirmation hearing. Even if they put in someone like Paul Clement himself, and they elevate him - he's well respected. But I think now there's simply a feeling that they gave Gonzales a pass at his confirmation hearing and look what happened. So I think the next person who's put up is going to come under enormous scrutiny. At the same time, I think the Bush administration had a lot of secrets it wants to keep, and so it certainly wants to have somebody who's been loyal and friendly to the administration. So this is going to be, I think, a very tough one. It may not be entirely surprising if Clement just waits out his interim position and they don't try to put someone else up. I know they said that they're going to try to, but boy, it is hard to imagine someone getting confirmed in this climate.
COHEN: Slate.com's legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick, thank you so much.
LITHWICK: Always a pleasure.
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