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Gonzales Testifies Before Senate on Attorney Firings

July 24, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was given another chance today to provide his account of the firings of nine federal prosecutors late last year and other matters. He faced a tough audience.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vermont: I don’t trust you.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: Is your department functioning?

KWAME HOLMAN: It was Gonzales’ first appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee since former officials of his department gave testimony that contrasted sharply with his own recollections. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Three months ago, when Attorney General Gonzales last appeared before this committee, I said that the Department of Justice was experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled during its history. Unfortunately, the crisis has not abated. Until there is independence and transparency and accountability, the crises will continue. The attorney general has lost the confidence of the Congress and the American people.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ranking Republican Arlen Specter even raised the prospect of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate whether the Justice Department fired the prosecutors at the direction of the White House.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: The attorney general has the authority to appoint a special prosecutor. You’re recused, but somebody else could do it.

Ashcroft's hospital visit

KWAME HOLMAN: In his opening remarks, the attorney general did not address the concerns about his performance. Democratic and some Republican members grilled Gonzales on a host of issues, chief among them a 2004 hospital visit to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Utah Republican Orrin Hatch invited Gonzales to provide his recollection of the visit he made as White House counsel to Ashcroft's hospital room. Gonzales said it occurred after an urgent White House meeting involving top congressional leaders. Ashcroft's former deputy, James Comey, testified in May that Gonzales and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card pressured the ailing Ashcroft to recertify a secret intelligence program that Comey opposed.

ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. Attorney General: We felt it important that the attorney general knew about the views and the recommendations of the congressional leadership, that as a former member of Congress and as someone who had authorized these activities for over two years, that it might be important for him to hear this information. That was the reason that Mr. Card and I went to the hospital.

Obviously, we were concerned about the condition about General Ashcroft. We obviously knew he had been ill and had had surgery. And we never had any intent to ask anything of him if we did not feel that he was competent.

Mr. Ashcroft talked about the legal issues in a lucid form as I've heard him talk about legal issues in the White House. But at the end of his description of the legal issues, he said, "I'm not making this decision; the deputy attorney general is."

And so I just wanted to put in context for this committee and the American people why Mr. Card and I went: It's because we had an emergency meeting in the White House situation room, where the congressional leadership had told us, "Continue going forward with this very important intelligence activity."

Responding to Goodling's testimony

KWAME HOLMAN: Gonzales also was confronted about the recent testimony of Monica Goodling, the Justice Department's former White House liaison. In May before the House Judiciary Committee, Goodling contradicted Gonzales' earlier testimony about the firings of the U.S. attorneys.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: On May 23rd, Monica Goodling testified under oath before the House Judiciary Committee that she had an uncomfortable conversation with you shortly before she left the department, during which you outlined your recollection of what happened and asked for her reaction. Which one of you is telling the truth?

ALBERTO GONZALES: I did have that conversation with her in the context of trying to console and reassure an emotionally distraught woman that she had done something wrong. And I tried to reassure her, as far as I knew, no one had done anything intentionally wrong. My conversation with her was not to shape her testimony.

KWAME HOLMAN: After ticking off the list of fired prosecutors, Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin posed this question to Gonzales.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), Maryland: We don't have the answers from the White House. We don't have the answers from you. And we're having a very difficult time getting the information without the assertion of executive privilege.

So where do we go in our -- what comfort can you give me that, in fact, these U.S. attorneys were fired for legitimate reasons and not because of political considerations, which all of us agree would be outrageous and wrong, if not illegal?

Repairing the Justice Department

ALBERTO GONZALES: Well, Senator, I have already said repeatedly that I did not accept these recommendations with the understanding that this was to punish or interfere with an investigation for purely partisan reasons. I accept responsibility for this. Senator Feinstein asked me, "Who put the names on the list?" Quite frankly, I'm assuming this committee has talked to everyone involved in putting those names on the list and has asked that question.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: We haven't talked to the people in the White House.

ALBERTO GONZALES: I did not put the names on the list. I accepted the recommendations. There were some names on the list, the recommendations made to me, that didn't surprise me, based upon what I'd heard of the performance during my tenure as attorney general. But no one, as far as I know, placed anyone on the list -- and I certainly did not accept the recommendation -- in order to punish someone.

KWAME HOLMAN: The attorney general says he plans to stay and fix the problems at the Justice Department, but demonstrators in the audience today already had made up their minds.