WASHINGTON - Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, trying to salvage his job, endured withering questioning on Thursday from Senate Judiciary Committee members who expressed grave doubts about his truthfulness and judgment in the firing of federal prosecutors.
In more than five hours of often-combative testimony, Mr. Gonzales, grim-faced, clasping his hands and hunched over, struggled to offer a coherent explanation for the dismissals. He apologized for his mistakes in what he said was a flawed process, but defended the removal of eight United States attorneys as proper.
"Although the process was nowhere near as rigorous or structured as it should have been," Mr. Gonzales said, "and while reasonable people might decide things differently, my decision to ask for the resignations of these U.S. attorneys is justified."
His performance clearly exasperated the committee members, who were angered as he invoked a faulty memory more than 50 times. Republicans did not hold back in going after one of their party's own. Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, went so far as to call for Mr. Gonzales to resign, a demand made by only one other senator, Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.
At the end of the hearing, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the panel, said, "I think we have gone about as far as we can go," adding, "We have not gotten really answers."
The White House said Thursday that Mr. Gonzales retained President Bush's "full confidence," adding that Mr. Bush "was pleased with his testimony."
Mr. Specter opened the hearing with a clear warning to the attorney general, whose previous accounts of the circumstances of the dismissals have been contradicted by other witnesses and e-mail records released in recent weeks.
"We have to evaluate whether you are really being forthright," Mr. Specter said. "Your characterization of your participation is significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts."
Other Republicans added their complaints. Mr. Coburn later told him, "I believe you ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered."
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, dismissed Mr. Gonzales's explanations of the removals as a "stretch," questioning whether the Justice Department was trying "to make up reasons to fire them because we wanted to get rid of them." Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, said Mr. Gonzales's memory lapses about crucial events were "troubling."
The furor has prompted a clash between Congress and the Bush administration over access to documents and testimony from top aides, including Karl Rove. United States attorneys are confirmed by the Senate after being nominated by the president, but they can be removed at any time by the administration.
Democrats continued to question whether the dismissals were politically motivated, and therefore, improper, an accusation that generated the vociferous debate that has already forced two senior Justice Department officials to resign.
Mr. Gonzales provided few new facts about the dismissals, instead often expressing a lack of recall about details of key conversations and events.
They included these:
- A conversation he concedes occurred in October 2006 with Mr. Bush about complaints that the president had received that three United States attorneys failed to prosecute voting fraud cases.
- A meeting in late November with his senior staff in which the plan for dismissals, then in its final stages, was discussed.
- Whether he had ever spoken with a top aide about ousting Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney in Chicago, who was then leading the leak investigation in the Valerie Wilson case. That resulted in the perjury conviction of I. Lewis Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff.
- How the entire idea of dismissing a certain number of the prosecutors originated.
Expressing annoyance, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the committee, pressed Mr. Gonzales about whether he had, as he has previously said, approved the dismissals sometime late last year.
"Well, how can you be sure you made the decision?" Mr. Leahy asked.
"Senator, I recall making the decision from this - I recall making the decision," Mr. Gonzales replied.
"When?" Mr. Leahy responded.
"Senator," Mr. Gonzales replied. "I don't recall when the decision was made."
Mr. Gonzales began the morning smiling, patting members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on their backs and arms as he greeted them.
But the tone quickly changed. As Mr. Leahy delivered his opening remarks, the attorney general was shaking his head back and forth, signaling "no," as if rejecting what would be hours of criticism of his performance.
In past appearances on Capitol Hill, Mr. Gonzales has been unflappable and polite, while giving often uninformative testimony. But at times Thursday, he was impatient and testy, demanding copies of documents cited by senators and leaning forward in his chair, jabbing his index finger on the witness table to make a point.
In his opening statement, Mr. Gonzales blamed others for "attacks on my integrity," and for wrongly suggesting he had intentionally misled the public about his role in the dismissals. Instead, he said, he had been imprecise.
"My misstatements were my mistakes, no one else's, and I accept complete and full responsibility here, as well," he said. " I never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people."
He seemed to make a plea to stay on as the nation's chief legal officer. "I have learned important lessons from this experience," he said. "I believe that Americans focus less on whether someone makes a mistake than on what he or she does to set things right."
During the hearing, Mr. Gonzales provided a brief explanation for each prosecutor's dismissal. Among the reasons he cited were insufficient immigration and gun crime prosecutions by Carol C. Lam, the United States attorney in San Diego; resistance to take up a death penalty case by Paul K. Charlton in Arizona; and management problems with Kevin V. Ryan of San Francisco, John McKay of Seattle and Margaret M. Chiara of Western Michigan.
But it was the ouster of David C. Iglesias, the prosecutor in New Mexico, that drew the most questions.
Mr. Gonzales acknowledged that Mr. Rove had spoken to him about Mr. Iglesias's office, as well as two other districts in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Mr. Rove had relayed complaints about what the attorney general described as "voter-fraud prosecutions, or lack of prosecutions," Mr. Gonzales recalled.
But pressed to explain the dismissal of Mr. Iglesias, Mr. Gonzales cited conversations with Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, on at least three occasions.
"Mr. Iglesias lost the confidence of Senator Domenici," Mr. Gonzales said. "He called me and said something to the effect that Mr. Iglesias was in over his head, and that he was concerned that Mr. Iglesias did not have the appropriate personnel focused on cases like public corruption cases."
But the Judiciary Committee members, for the most part, seemed unsatisfied with Mr. Gonzales's explanations, saying that the rationales he and other department officials had offered for the dismissals had changed so many times that they were not sure which to believe.
Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, noted that five of the seven prosecutors removed in early December were involved in corruption investigations of government officials.
"Don't you see that this might have been interpreted as trying to send a message to U.S. attorneys around the country to stay away from sensitive political corruption cases?" Mr. Cardin asked.
Mr. Gonzales said that he considered it a fair question, but that it was an unjustified fear.
"We follow the evidence; we make decisions based on the evidence and not based upon if the target is a Republican or Democrat," he said.
In retrospect, Mr. Gonzales said he would have handled the removals differently. He said he should have been more involved, given aides more explicit descriptions of factors to use in evaluating the United States attorneys and insisted that there be face- to-face meetings with those identified for possible ouster.
After Mr. Gonzales listed the reasons for each dismissal, Mr. Graham expressed skepticism that those were in fact the criteria used.
"Mr. Attorney General, most of this is a stretch," he said. "I think 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."
Despite weeks of criticism and questions about his credibility, Mr. Gonzales gave no sign that he planned to step down.
Responding to a question from Senator Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, about whether he can still lead the Justice Department, Mr. Gonzales said: "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."
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