By Paul Kane and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 9, 2007
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales agreed yesterday to change the way U.S. attorneys can be replaced, a reversal in administration policy that came after he was browbeaten by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee still angry over the controversial firings of eight federal prosecutors.
Gonzales told Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and other senior members of the committee that the administration will no longer oppose legislation limiting the attorney general's power to appoint interim prosecutors. Gonzales also agreed to allow the committee to interview five top-level Justice Department officials as part of an ongoing Democratic-led probe into the firings, senators said after a tense, hour-long meeting in Leahy's office suite.
The concessions represent a turnaround by the White House and the Justice Department, which have argued for three months that Gonzales must have unfettered power to appoint interim federal prosecutors and have resisted disclosing details about the firings.
But the administration has been battered by mounting allegations that several of the fired prosecutors -- six of whom testified before Congress on Tuesday -- had been the subject of intimidation, including improper telephone calls from GOP lawmakers or their aides, and alleged threats of retaliation by Justice Department officials. One prosecutor told lawmakers this week that he felt "leaned on" by a senior Republican senator, and Senate Democrats have readied subpoenas for five key members of Gonzales' inner circle of advisers.
The capitulation came just hours after several leading Senate Republicans sharply criticized Gonzales for his handling of the issue. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, seemed to suggest that Gonzales's tenure may not last through the remainder of President Bush's term.
"One day there will be a new attorney general, maybe sooner rather than later," Specter said sharply. In an interview with Reuters after the meeting with Gonzales, Specter said his comments did not imply he thought the attorney general should be replaced.
Even two of the administration's strongest defenders on the issue openly questioned the Justice Department's handling of the dismissals. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) called the lack of explanation for the firings "unhealthy," and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said the department's public criticisms of the ousted prosecutors were unwarranted.
"Some people's reputations are going to suffer needlessly," Kyl said.
The firings, most of which happened Dec. 7, became a flashpoint for Democrats in part because they were accompanied by a little-noticed change in federal law in 2006 that allowed Gonzales to appoint interim federal prosecutors to indefinite terms. Under the previous system, the local federal district court would appoint a temporary replacement after 120 days until a permanent candidate was named and confirmed by the Senate.
Democrats and some Republicans said they were concerned the Justice Department was attempting to use the new provision to appoint political cronies without Senate oversight and that the firings were a means to that end. Gonzales and other Justice officials have argued that the old replacement system was inefficient and unconstitutional.
Democrats have attempted to attach to several pieces of legislation language to remove the provision, but they have been blocked repeatedly by Kyl. Senate aides cautioned that Gonzales's assertion that the administration will stand down did not guarantee passage, as Senate Republicans could still block the measure.
But after their meeting, Leahy said Gonzales assured him Bush will sign the bill if it reaches his desk. "My understanding is the president would," Leahy said.
Emerging from what participants called a "frank" discussion, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the attorney general agreed to allow five senior Justice Department aides to be interviewed by the committee in an inquiry that will probably begin in a private setting. Schumer said the committee will also consider whether to hold public hearings at which the aides would testify about their roles in the firings. Schumer said the decision makes it unnecessary for Democrats to pursue subpoenas to compel testimony from the aides, including Gonzales's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and the top aide to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty.
That aide, Michael J. Elston, had a phone conversation with one of the ousted U.S. attorneys, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, shortly after a Feb. 18 article on the firings appeared in The Washington Post. According to Cummins's testimony earlier this week, the conversation with Elston ended with a brief exchange in which the Justice aide appeared to threaten Cummins and the other former U.S. attorneys who were on the verge of agreeing to testify before the House and Senate judiciary committees.
Specter emerged from the meeting saying he still had no clear understanding why the prosecutors were dismissed. He said he instructed Gonzales to take back remarks he made in an op-ed in Wednesday's USA Today, in which he called the issue an "overblown personnel matter." Specter also asked Gonzales to do something to help remove the "significant blemish" now on the records of the fired prosecutors.
The House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Gonzales yesterday requesting testimony from the same five officials and demanding copies of all documents related to the firings.
No agreement has been reached between Gonzales and lawmakers on what documents will be turned over to Capitol Hill in relation to the firings.
At least one administration official, presidential adviser Karl Rove, stood by several stances that the Justice Department has now backed away from. He defended the firings in an appearance at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock as "normal and ordinary" and compared them to decisions by President Bill Clinton and Bush to remove nearly all federal prosecutors after taking office.
However, the anger among Republicans about the handling continued to grow. One GOP leader, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), told his hometown newspaper that he remains furious over the firing of Daniel Bogden, who was U.S. attorney for Nevada, questioning whether Justice Department officials have been straight with him in explaining the dismissal.
"I can't even tell you how upset I am at the Justice Department," Ensign told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report from Little Rock.