Angry Dems to Question Defiant Gonzales
WASHINGTON -- When Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales faces angry Senate Democrats tomorrow, he will insist that even though the White House was originally behind the dismissals of eight US attorneys last year, none of the prosecutors was fired for political reasons.In his prepared Senate testimony, which was released yesterday, Gonzales also acknowledges that he made a broad range of mistakes in handling the firings and he apologizes to the prosecutors and their families.
"I have nothing to hide and I am committed to assuring the Congress and the American public that nothing improper occurred here," Gonzales says. He adds that he had only an indirect role in the firings and his memory of the planning for them is hazy.
The appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee has been described as a make-or-break moment for the nation's top federal law enforcement officer.
"I know that I did not, and would not, ask for a resignation of any individual in order to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain," Gonzales says in his statement. "I also have no basis to believe that anyone involved in this process sought the removal of a US attorney for an improper reason."
In an unusual move, the Justice Department released the prepared testimony in two days before the hearing.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who has been leading the Judiciary Committee's investigation of the controversy, reacted quickly to the attorney general's 24-page statement, saying it "does not advance his cause at all."
The terminations of the eight US attorneys -- one last summer, the other seven on Dec. 7 -- have ignited a firestorm in Washington, with critics charging that political pressure was behind the dismissals.
Democrats have mounted a broadening investigation and held hearings not only into why the prosecutors were abruptly fired but also into new allegations of missing e-mails at the White House, including some from political strategist Karl Rove that could show his involvement in the terminations.
A number of Democrats have called for Gonzales to step down, their cries echoed by some Republicans.
Yesterday, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that Gonzales "ought to consider" reinstating the eight prosecutors. He also warned that Gonzales's performance tomorrow could decide his future at the helm of the Justice Department.
On CBS's "Face the Nation," Vice President Dick Cheney described Gonzales as "a good man" and added: "I have every confidence in him."
But when asked whether the White House had a credibility problem because of the scandal, Cheney responded: "Obviously, we've got issues we need to work through. The attorney general will be doing that this week with respect to the US attorney question."
Schumer dismissed Gonzales's prepared testimony as heavy on rhetoric but lean on facts.
The "only important theme" in the statement, Schumer said, was that Gonzales "points the finger of responsibility" at D. Kyle Sampson, who was the attorney general's chief of staff. Sampson resigned March 12, the day before the release of e-mails between Justice Department and White House officials describing a lengthy campaign to get rid of prosecutors who had lost favor among administration officials.
March 29, Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee that while he had helped to coordinate the firings, he did not make the decisions about who would go. He also said that despite the attorney general's statements earlier in March that he had not been involved in the discussions, Gonzales had participated in several meetings, including one 10 days before the dismissals were announced.
The department has been trying to get its position out well in advance of the much-anticipated Senate showdown. An op-ed article written by Gonzales, titled "Nothing Improper," was published in yesterday's Washington Post.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said yesterday that there was no hidden agenda in the early release of the testimony.
"The Congress requested in a letter that we provide the written testimony 48 hours in advance of his hearing," he said. "We complied with that request by sending it to them at 9 a.m. this morning. Since we knew they would release it to the press, we also sent it out."
In his statement, Gonzales says he did not "intentionally" make false statements earlier this year about his involvement.
He adds that he "misspoke" at a March 13 news conference when he said he was not involved in discussions about the removals. That statement was contradicted by documents showing he attended a lengthy meeting in advance of the firings.
"Of course I knew about the process," Gonzales says. But he adds that his earlier statement "certainly was not in any way an attempt to mislead the American people."
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