TOPICS > Politics

Gonzales Acknowledges ‘Mistakes’ in Ousting U.S. Attorneys

March 13, 2007 at 5:15 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today’s revelations that several White House officials coordinated with the office of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys prompted outrage on Capitol Hill and renewed calls for Gonzales’ resignation.

New York Democrat Charles Schumer.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), New York: We now have direct evidence that Attorney General Gonzales was carrying out the political wishes of the president in at least some of these firings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even Texas Republican John Cornyn, a close friend of Gonzales and the White House, was critical.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: This has not been handled well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gonzales, who abruptly cleared his schedule today to deal with the unfolding crisis, said this afternoon he would take responsibility for the dismissals but would not step down.

ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. Attorney General: I acknowledge that mistakes were made here; I accept that responsibility. And my pledge to the American people is to find out what went wrong here, to assess accountability, and to make improvements so that the mistakes that occurred in this instance do not occur again in the future.

Finally, let me just say one thing. I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles in my life to become attorney general. I am here not because I give up; I am here because I’ve learned from my mistakes, because I accept responsibility, and because I’m committed to doing my job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In recent weeks, Justice Department officials had told members of Congress that the White House was not involved in the firings. But today’s news reports, quoting White House officials, revealed that the president himself and his senior adviser, Karl Rove, were referring complaints about several of the prosecutors to Gonzales.

Gonzales’ chief of staff Kyle Sampson resigned his position last night, as it was being disclosed he coordinated the firings with the White House counsel at the time, Harriet Miers.

In fact, two years ago, Miers went so far as to suggest firing all 93 U.S. attorneys, an idea that justice officials said was rejected as politically unwise. Sampson suggested instead a smaller number of attorneys be fired, using a little known Patriot Act provision that allows the president to name interim replacements without Senate confirmation.

In a September e-mail to Miers, Sampson wrote, quote, “We can get one, our preferred person appointed and, two, do it far faster and more efficiently at less political cost to the White House.”

When that plan was cleared by the White House a few days later, an e-mail from Sampson to Miers said one prosecutor, Bud Cummins, in Little Rock, Arkansas, is, quote, “in the process of being pushed out.”

According to news reports, President Bush told Gonzales last October that he had received complaints about some prosecutors not energetically pursuing voter fraud investigations. Two months later, on December 7th, seven of the U.S. attorneys were told by the Justice Department to resign.

One was New Mexico’s David Iglesias, who last week told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was pressured to act on Democrat-focused corruption investigations by New Mexico Republicans Senator Pete Domenici and Congresswoman Heather Wilson, both of whom had also taken their complaints to the Justice Department.

Iglesias testified that he asked the justice official who phoned him why he was being fired.

DAVID IGLESIAS, Former U.S. Attorney, New Mexico: He said, “I don’t know, Dave. I don’t want to know, and I don’t think — I don’t want to know. All I know is this came from on high.” That was a quote, “on high.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, Attorney General Gonzales said he stands by the firings, but acknowledged they should have been better explained.

ALBERTO GONZALES: When these U.S. attorneys were advised that changes were going to be made, quite frankly, they should have been told why those changes were being made, and I regret that that didn’t happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Democrats made it clear they are not satisfied with the answers being given by the executive branch. California’s Dianne Feinstein.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), California: This is now a much bigger issue than any of us ever believed it to be, and that it was strategized, that it was put together, that a number of people participated, and that, really, the first group to go was this group.

What I don’t like is it is so disingenuous. The right reason, the real reasons aren’t necessarily the reasons being given. And I think this is what drives this into a much more political venue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said he would likely call Rove, Miers and Sampson to testify on the firings.

Late this afternoon, counselor to the president Dan Bartlett, traveling with Mr. Bush in Mexico, responded to reporters’ questions about the fired federal prosecutors and the status of Attorney General Gonzales.

JOURNALIST: And the attorney general said — took responsibility for mistakes. Does the president still have full confidence in the attorney general?

DAN BARTLETT, Counselor to the President: He absolutely has full confidence in the attorney general, and the reason why he does is for exactly what he said today. He’s a stand-up guy.

He’s a person who comes to the job every day, doing the best he can to serve the United States of America. He takes that job very seriously. And when he saw problems, he’s pledged to the American people and to the United States Congress to fix those problems.

But I take issue with the fact that he is the fall guy in this. All the decisions that were made with regards to the removal of these U.S. attorneys were proper decisions.

What was not done properly and didn’t live up to standards of the attorney general and the Bush administration was the fact that Mr. Sampson didn’t share that information as freely as he should have with members of his own team there at the Department of Justice, who are going up to Congress to testify about this.

Mr. Sampson offered his resignation. He understood himself that he should have done a better job with this.

A case of 'political interference'

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Chair, Judiciary Committee
This has hurt law enforcement, from the top all the way down, to see this kind of political interference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, for more on today's developments, we are joined by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and California Republican Darrell Issa, he's a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

We also extended invitations to all nine Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee; all of them declined.

Senator Leahy, to you first. There are several layers to this story, if you will, several points of interest. And I want to start at the White House, at the top, with the president -- the disclosure today that the president said something to the attorney general some months ago about complaints he was hearing about these U.S. attorneys. Is that something that concerns you?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vermont: Well, that concerns me. I mean, the attorney general said today that it should have been better explained. Of course it should have.

One of the best ways of doing it would be to tell the truth right from the beginning; that hasn't happened. I told the attorney general this morning when I read the accounts in the newspapers how bitterly disappointed I was in him, in not telling the truth, and the administration not telling us the truth.

A lot of this goes back to -- you know, they've had six years of pretty much a rubber-stamp Congress, where nobody asked them any questions. Now, all of a sudden, they're having questions asked. They're having a very, very hard time actually answering them.

I'd recommend all they have to do is come forward, tell the truth. They haven't done that yet, not the complete truth. They haven't done it yet. I certainly hope they will.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, to try to help all of us better understand what happened here, because we're talking about several individuals at the White House, several at the Justice Department, we're also talking about the U.S. attorneys themselves, Senator Leahy, what I would like to get at first is, do you have a concern that the president raises with the attorney general or do you think that's an entirely appropriate thing for the president to have done?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: They all serve at the pleasure of the president. I was a prosecutor, and I know what it's like when you have political interference, where somebody tries political interference in a prosecution. It spoils the whole system.

We find that Karl Rove, the president's adviser, I assume with the president's OK, wanted to get rid of a U.S. attorney in Arkansas because he had somebody -- nowhere near as qualified, but as an acolyte of his -- he wanted to put him in that place.

We had others. We know that public officials spoke to the president, spoke to the White House. It just does not smell right.

You know, when you have a normal turnover of U.S. attorneys, that's one thing, because then you nominate somebody else to come to the Senate for confirmation. You can ask these questions.

Here they were trying to use a loophole in the law to fire a number of people, put other people in, sends a chilling effect among the U.S. attorneys, but it also hurts the integrity and the independence of the U.S. attorneys.

People have to understand, this has hurt law enforcement, from the top all the way down, to see this kind of political interference.

Need for an explanation

Rep. Darrell Issa
The House and the Senate, Republican and Democrats, agree that this attorney general and everyone involved needs to come down and explain to us, not per se why the president chose to fire these people, but why we were deceived.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Issa, also, let me stay with the White House here for just a moment and come to the role of the former White House counsel, Harriet Miers. We learned that, two years ago, she raised the idea of firing all U.S. attorneys or looking at that in the wake of the 2004 election. Is this something -- can you explain why this might have happened?

REP. DARRELL ISSA (R), California: Well, I think you have to state it slightly more accurately than the way it's characterized. After the new attorney general was in place, Harriet Miers said, at the end of their four years -- not four years of the president, but four years of their service -- should we have them all tender their resignations?

Presumably some of the resignations would be accepted; others would not. It was actually, as I understand it -- Attorney General Gonzales did push back and said this would be too disruptive to have so many turning over at once.

And then, for a period of over a year -- and this is the part that aggravates all of us, at least on the House side in Judiciary -- for over a year, there was a debate in which they looked at multiple U.S. attorneys, some of whom really should have been asked to go immediately, and others who perhaps were more in a gray area, and then had a mass firing.

Now, the White House doesn't owe the senator or myself an explanation of why they choose to get rid of any appointee. But once they give a reason, then we can hold them accountable. And that's what this is all about right now.

This is where the House and the Senate, Republican and Democrats, agree that this attorney general and everyone involved needs to come down and explain to us, not per se why the president chose to fire these people, but why we were deceived.

Both the House and the Senate were deceived by individuals who were given bad information and sent down to literally say what others, including Kyle Sampson, knew was not true. That kind of hubris by this administration has to be cleared up, and everyone responsible has to be held accountable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Congressman, just to be clear, your concern is with the fact that all the facts weren't shared with the Congress. It's not what the Justice Department was doing?

REP. DARRELL ISSA: Well, here's -- well, the Justice Department...

JUDY WOODRUFF: In going over each one of these U.S. attorneys and using a set of criteria to decide whether they should stay or not, related to how they were pursuing cases of voter fraud?

REP. DARRELL ISSA: Well, no, that's one example you've given, but I'll give you one from today's discovery that has to do with Carol Lam in San Diego, where they wanted to know -- basically they were evaluating her failure to prosecute gun crimes and immigration, not one case, but the cumulative numbers, which were such deficits.

This is a legitimate reason to question whether somebody is implementing policy of the president and the stated policy of the attorney general. That was a legitimate reason either to get it fixed or ask her for her resignation. Those got muddies with these other issues.

I can't speak to every one of these U.S. attorneys, but I do expect this administration to give us now the details of the process, not because they owed it to us initially, but they owe it to us now because we've been deceived and, in our oversight, we have a right to know how we got told things which were not true.

I believe, at the end of the day, most, if not all, of these U.S. attorneys, they will have a justification, which we may not agree with, but which they have a right to have for why they terminated them. I don't believe, at this point -- and I don't know what the senator knows what I don't know -- but I don't believe right now that we're going to find out that any of these were terminated because of a specific prosecution.

However, the House and the Senate now must find out what is the truth of this.

Finding the facts

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Chair, Judiciary Committee
What I want to find out is what happened, why we've been given different stories. And I want those answers, not in an informal briefing; I want those answers in public, in sworn testimony, under oath before my committee.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Leahy, I want to ask you to respond to that.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, you know, the fact of the matter is, the president has a right to replace people. Some wish he'd replace some earlier than he did.

But in the U.S. attorneys thing, the way this was done, it smacks of trying to influence, especially in several cases, prosecutions that are underway.

Now, maybe that's true, and maybe it's not. But when the attorney general comes up, gives us one misleading statement after another, and I've put him under oath when he comes up here, it raises too many questions.

I intend to bring the attorney general up here. I am requesting several other people to come up here, certainly Mr. Sampson, Ms. Miers, I assume eventually Karl Rove. If they don't come, then I'll seek to subpoena them up here, because the story changes almost every time we pick up the newspaper.

And then, when things that they were supposed to have told the Judiciary Committees comes out because the press found out, they say, "Oops, sorry. Forget about what we said yesterday. We have a new story for you."

That doesn't cut it at the highest level of government, at the White House level, at the Department of Justice. It certainly doesn't cut it when the attorney general says I have -- what was it? -- 110,000 personnel, I can't know what every one of them is doing.

Well, he certainly should know what his chief of staff, who sits just a few feet from him every single day, know what he was doing.

These stories that they've given us don't add up. And I think that we have -- and I've heard this from a lot of Republican senators who said the same thing -- get the facts. And that's what I'm going to do.

I just want -- first of all, I want to find the facts. Then I want us to go back to the way they're supposed to do it, that is, nominate a U.S. attorney. They come to the Senate for confirmation, and we get a chance to see whether this person is free of political motivations, but will work as a prosecutor should.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Senator, you're not prepared to go along at this point with the Senate majority leader, your colleague, Harry Reid, or Senator Chuck Schumer, who've already called for the attorney general to step down?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, any senator can say what they want. Of course, ultimately the president makes the decision whether he does or not. If the president feels that this kind of performance reflects the best of what his administration can offer, well, then that's going to have to be his choice.

What I want to find out is what happened, why we've been given different stories. And I want those answers, not in an informal briefing; I want those answers in public, in sworn testimony, under oath before my committee. As chairman, that's what I insist.

An obligation for oversight

Rep. Darrell Issa
We're not going to quit until every one of these people has testified and we know the whole truth about the failure to be candid about these firings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Issa, the e-mails that have come out, among other things, of the attorney general's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who just stepped down yesterday, some of the language in here, you know, talking about, in essence, going around Senate confirmation, choosing people, choosing new U.S. attorneys through a different route that would not require that, saying we'll be able to, quote, "do it far faster and more efficiently, at less political cost to the White House."

Can you explain that?

REP. DARRELL ISSA: Well, I certainly can explain that this kind of gamesmanship was not the intent under the Patriot Act that gave certain emergency powers.

And I think the White House understands that none of these seven do we expect to be appointed, except through the process that we've used in the past. And in California, we have a whole commission that does the pre-screening.

But I think it's important to realize that one of the parts of this story is this political interference they talk about. I was one of 19 members of the House, plus Senator Feinstein, who wrote to the president, to the attorney general, and to others, talking about a lack of prosecutions by one U.S. attorney.

So let's not mix whether or not these people should have been let go or the president had a right to do, with the fact that all of us want to know who led Congress astray. The House and the Senate were lied to, not by the people that were sent to the Hill, but by the people who sent them there. And every one of those people owes us a resignation.

And that's the difference, perhaps, between what the Democrats are walking around. If someone led us astray, they should resign. And I don't care how high it is: Anyone involved with this cover-up of giving us the truth needs to step down.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I find many areas where I'm in total agreement with the congressman. I would point out, however, whether they resign or not, I still intend to have them before the committee, under oath...

REP. DARRELL ISSA: And so do we.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: ... because I don't ever want this to happen again. I don't care if it's a Democratic or a Republican administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Representative Issa, you're including the attorney general in that?

REP. DARRELL ISSA: I'm including anybody who would mislead, deliberately mislead the Congress, and the senator is absolutely right. Resigning doesn't change the fact that we're going to get to the bottom of who knew and failed to let us know what -- well, members of the government were being sent to us to give us false information.

That's not tolerable ever, by either party, because we have an obligation. We were simply using our legitimate oversight responsibility in the House and the Senate. And then we were lied to by well-meaning young men who came up to give testimony, that they were given false. And that irritates us beyond belief.

And if it's the attorney general who had a hand in it, then he will have to step down. It certainly included Kyle Sampson, and he has stepped down.

And the senator is right: We're not going to quit until every one of these people has testified and we know the whole truth about the failure to be candid about these firings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Darrell Issa and Senator Patrick Leahy, gentlemen, thank you both.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Good to be with you.