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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Today, it was the attorney general's long-awaited opportunity to defend himself before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Alberto Gonzales spent hours testifying about the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys, explaining why they were fired and why his explanations have been so contradictory. Even Justice Department officials admit the attorney general's job may depend on his performance at the hearing.

As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, senators did not give him an easy time.

ARI SHAPIRO: There were four opening statements, two Republicans and two Democrats. Every one of them was withering, starting with committee chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Today, the Department of Justice is experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled during its 137-year history.

SHAPIRO: Then the ranking Republican, Arlen Specter, flatly laid down what's at stake for the hearing's sole witness. He said Gonzales' task is to convince the committee he should remain attorney general.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): This is as important a hearing as I can recall, short of the confirmation of Supreme Court justices, more important than your confirmation hearing. In a sense, it is a reconfirmation hearing.

SHAPIRO: After New York Democrat Charles Schumer delivered his expected attack on the attorney general, the final opening statement came from Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican who typically defends the Bush administration.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): I believe that you should have been more involved in the entire process. I believe, frankly, you should have said no.

SHAPIRO: The unstated message from Sessions and all of the others was: Mr. Attorney General, you're on your own. Leahy swore in the witness, putting an unusual emphasis on one part of the oath.

Sen. LEAHY: Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you give before this committee will be the whole truth, so help you God?

SHAPIRO: Gonzales said: I do. He told the committee he'd made mistakes. He apologized to the committee and to the U.S. attorneys who were fired.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Attorney General): I regret how they were treated, and I apologize to them and to their families for allowing this matter to become an unfortunate and undignified public spectacle.

SHAPIRO: But he said while the process was flawed, quote, "I firmly believe nothing improper occurred."

Mr. GONZALES: It would be improper to remove a U.S. attorney, to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution, for partisan political gain. I did not do that. I would never do that.

SHAPIRO: With opening statements done, the fireworks began. Gonzales made the first of many missteps early in the hearing. Specter noted that the attorney general had been working hard to prepare for today, and Gonzales threw in…

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: 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 just think that I was always prepared. I said I prepared for every hearing.

SHAPIRO: Gonzales has been backpedaling furiously ever since he said on March 13th that he never had discussions or saw documents about the U.S. attorney dismissals. Finally, Specter's side…

Sen. SPECTER: I'd like you to win this debate…

Mr. GONZALES: I appreciate it.

Sen. SPECTER: …Attorney General Gonzales. I'd like you to win this debate.

Mr. GONZALES: I apologize, Senator.

Sen. SPECTER: But you're going to have to win it.

SHAPIRO: Gonzales said today that his involvement in the dismissals was limited. But he also told Congress he had conversations about U.S. attorneys Bud Cummins in Arkansas, Carol Lam in San Diego, and David Iglesias in New Mexico. So Specter wanted to know:

Sen. SPECTER: How much more could you have been involved than to be concerned about the replacement of Cummins, and to evaluate Lam, and to be involved in Iglesias? Now we haven't gone over the others, but is that limited in your professional judgment?

SHAPIRO: Gonzales said he had thousands of conversations over the two years that the dismissals were being discussed. So in context, he said, his involvement was limited. He noted that he never looked at the prosecutors' performance evaluations before signing off on their dismissals.

Well, in that case - Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts asked -how can you say for certain that no one was fired for an improper reason?

Mr. GONZALES: I think I was justified…

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): But you didn't know whether those decisions were proper or improper since you've said you had limited involvement, the progress was not vigorous, and you basically gave the assignment to Mr. Sampson.

Mr. GONZALES: Senator…

Senator KENNEDY: He testified and you approved.

Mr. GONZALES: I think that I'm justified in relying upon what I understood to be the recommendation, the consensus recommendation, of the senior leadership.

SHAPIRO: Mr. Sampson is Kyle Sampson, the attorney general's former chief of staff who orchestrated the dismissals. Gonzales walks through the reasons for each of the U.S. attorneys' firings. He said Nevada's U.S. attorney Daniel Bogden was the closest call. He said Margaret Chiara of Michigan and Kevin Ryan of San Francisco were both fired because they didn't have the confidence of their staff. The one U.S. attorney who was different from all the others, according to Gonzales, was Bud Cummins of Arkansas.

Mr. GONZALES: He was asked to resign on June 14th. I was - I myself was confused, quite frankly, when I testified on January 18th. I had forgotten that, in fact, Mr. Cummins would - had been asked to resign on June 14th. And the reason I did was because Mr. Cummins left basically at the same time as everyone else did.

SHAPIRO: If Gonzales' goal was clarify the record, senators seemed more confused than ever. Leahy asked, when Gonzales lost his confidence in David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, he was added to the list just a few weeks before the dismissals, after New Mexico's Republican Senator Pete Domenici complained to the White House and the Justice Department about him.

Iglesias has said he believes he was fired because he didn't indict Democrats before the close November elections. Gonzales replied to Leahy:

Mr. GONZALES: Mr. Iglesias lost the confidence of Senator Domenici, as I recall, in the fall of 2005.

SHAPIRO: That's not what I asked, said Leahy.

Sen. LEAHY: Mr. Attorney General, my question wasn't when he may have lost the confidence of Senator Domenici. My question is, when and why did he lose your confidence?

Mr. GONZALES: Senator, what I instructed Mr. Sampson to do was consult with people in the department.

Sen. LEAHY: When and why did he lose your confidence?

Mr. GONZALES: Based upon the recommendation, what I understood to be the - consensus recommendation of the senior leadership in the department.

SHAPIRO: During the entire hearing, Republicans who usually come to the attorney general's defense went on the attack. John Cornyn of Texas called the dismissals deplorable. A line from Lindsey Graham of South Carolina even prompted applause from the protesters sitting in the audience.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): At the end of the day, you said something that struck me that sometimes, it just came down to these were not the right people at the right time. If I applied that standard to you, what would you say?

Mr. GONZALES: Senator, I think, what I would say…

(Soundbite of gavel)

Mr. GONZALES: Senator, what I would say is that I believe that I continue to be effective as the attorney general of the United States.

SHAPIRO: It's common to see rage and frustration at a congressional hearing; it's much less common to see the expression that was on Graham's face: pity. Another applause line came from this exchange with Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin.

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…

Sen. DURBIN: The fact of the matter is…

Atty. Gen. GONZALES: …you should attack me.

Sen. DURBIN: …your conduct of this department…

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. DURBIN: …your conduct to this department has made it more difficult for these professionals to do their job affectively.

SHAPIRO: Justice officials said earlier in the day that they'd consider the hearing a victory if the attorney general could make it through without any new Republicans calling on Gonzales to resign. In the afternoon, Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma told Gonzales: From one conservative to another, the best way to put this behind us is your resignation.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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