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

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admitted Tuesday that "mistakes were made" in the December firing of eight U.S. attorneys, but declined to resign over the controversy. Two senators discuss the day's developments.

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  • 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.

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