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U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales fielded tough questions about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday. Committee leaders Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., discuss his testimony.
By the accounts of Democrats and Republicans alike, Alberto Gonzales entered today's hearing with his job on the line.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: Your ability to lead the Department of Justice is in question. I wish that weren't not so, but I think it certainly is.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), New York: If the attorney general cannot answer a straightforward, factual question from a senator about recent events, how can he possibly run the department?
For months, Gonzales has given differing explanations of his role in the controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys dismissed without warning late last year. Gonzales sought to set the record straight in his opening remarks this morning.
ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. Attorney General:
U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. There is nothing improper making a change for poor management, policy differences, or questionable judgment, or simply to have another qualified individual serve.
It would be improper to remove a U.S. attorney to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain. I did not do that; I would never do that.
What I have concluded is that, although the process was nowhere near as rigorous or structured as it should have been, and while reasonable people might decide things differently, my decision to ask for the resignations of these U.S. attorneys is justified and should stand.
But it was clear from the start of the hearing that many committee members were not satisfied with Gonzales' apology, nor with his defense of the Justice Department's actions.
Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy asked Gonzales how he could be certain there was nothing improper about the firings if he wasn't heavily involved in the process, as Gonzales has maintained.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: How can you give us those assurances, since you had a limited involvement, the process wasn't vigorous, and you left it, basically, to somebody else?
Well, Senator, since then, of course, I have gone back and looked at the documents made available to Congress. I also had a conversation with the deputy…
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY:
This is since then?
But when you made the judgment and decision, when you made the judgment and decision, you didn't know, did you?
On December 7th — I know the basis on which I made the decision, no reasons that would be characterized as improper. I think I was justified.
But you didn't know whether those decisions were proper or improper, since you've said you had limited involvement, the progress was not vigorous, and you basically gave the assignment to Mr. Sampson…
… as he testified and you approved?
… I think that I'm justified in relying upon what I understood to be the recommendation, the consensus recommendation of the senior leadership. And I think, as we look through the documents, as you glean through the documents, nothing improper occurred here. You have more information about the testimony of witnesses than I do.
But throughout the day, the main point of contention was the attorney general's role in the firings versus that of his senior staff. Several senators focused on a March 13th press conference, where Gonzales restated his limited involvement in the firings.
… was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on…
Gonzales later admitted he misspoke, that he did have some involvement, but that correction came only after the Justice Department released e-mails and memos that showed Gonzales had been involved in numerous discussions about the firings.
Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: And I know you're familiar with this record, because I know you've been preparing for this hearing.
I prepare for every hearing, Senator.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER:
Do you prepare for all your press conferences? Were you prepared for the press conference, where you said there weren't any discussions involving you?
Senator, I've already said that I misspoke. It was my mistake.
I'm asking you: Were you prepared? You interjected that you're always prepared. Were you prepared for that press conference?
Senator, I didn't say that I was always prepared. I said I prepared for every hearing.
Well, and I'm asking you, do you prepare for your press conferences?
Senator, we do take time to try to prepare for the press conference.
And were you prepared when you said you weren't involved in any deliberations?
Senator, I've already conceded that I misspoke at that press conference. There was nothing intentional…
Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions focused on one critical meeting where Gonzales was present, according to the attorney general's former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who resigned in March after the controversy erupted. Sampson said that meeting took place on November 27th, 10 days before the rash of prosecutor firings.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: Do you recall that meeting and where it took place?
Senator, I have searched my memory. I have no recollection of the meeting. My schedule shows a meeting for 9:00 on November 27th, but I have no recollection of that meeting.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS:
And this was not that long ago. This was in November of last year?
According to my calendar, November 27th.
And Mr. Sampson seemed to indicate that he really — he understood it was a momentous decision, that there would probably be political backlash. He'd even performed some outline about how that should be managed. And you don't recall any of that?
Senator, I can only testify as to what I recall. Believe me, I've searched my mind about this meeting. I'd have no reason not to talk about this meeting.
At some point, of course, Mr. Sampson presented to me the recommendations. And at some point, I understood what the implementation plan was, but I don't recall the contents of this meeting, Senator. I'm not suggesting that the meeting did not happen.
Sessions also pointed to the testimony of Michael Battle, who oversaw the U.S. attorney program at Justice until he, too, resigned last month. Battle told Senate investigators that Gonzales was involved in several meetings where the firings were discussed.
And Mr. Battle, who was there, testified that you were there, and he thought you were there most of the time. Would you dispute Mr. Battle?
Well, Senator, putting aside the issue, of course, sometimes people's recollections are different. I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Battle's testimony.
Well, I guess I'm concerned about your recollection, really, because it's not that long ago. It was an important issue, and that's troubling to me, I've got to tell you.
One senator after another repeated how poorly Gonzales and his colleagues handled the firings and their weak justifications for doing it. Six of the eight prosecutors had received glowing job evaluations during their tenure, yet were told their firings were performance-related.
That's what Gonzales argued in a March 13th newspaper editorial, but Michael Battle, who had the job of calling the attorneys and actually doing the firing, has said he knew nothing about any performance problems until shortly before he was directed to dismiss them.
Under questioning from California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Gonzales admitted he never looked at performance evaluations of the U.S. attorneys' offices.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), California: You're testifying to us that you made these decisions without ever looking at the performance reports.
Senator, that is correct.
South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham followed.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: I guess what I'm trying to wonder, is this really performance-based or did these people just run afoul of personality conflicts in the office, and we were trying to make up reasons to fire them because we wanted to get rid of them?
Sir, I think, if you look at the documentation, I think you can see that there is documentation supporting these decisions.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:
Mr. Attorney General, most of this is a stretch. 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.
Sir, I respectfully disagree with that. I really do.
It was Texas Republican John Cornyn, a longtime friend of Gonzales and staunch ally of the administration, who gave the attorney general a chance to say what he would have done differently.
I think I would have had the deputy attorney general more involved, directly involved. I think that I should have told Mr. Sampson who I wanted him to consult with specifically. I should have asked him, "Who are you going to consult with?" I should have asked — I should have told him, "I want the recommendation to include these people."
And so I think these are the things, when I talk about a more rigorous, a more structured process, I think these are the kinds of things that, in hindsight, that I wish would have happened.
But for Cornyn's Republican colleague, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the entire episode has done far too much damage to the Department of Justice.
SEN. TOM COBURN (R), Oklahoma: I believe you ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered, and I believe that the best way to put this behind us is your resignation.
After more than seven hours in front of the committee, Alberto Gonzales was dismissed.
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