By Paul Kane and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Under fire from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales scrambled to shore up support late this week, reassuring key Senate Republicans that he would address concerns about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys and the FBI's admission that it violated procedures in the use of its anti-terrorism authority.
Lawmakers and their aides said the attorney general called at least four members of the Senate Republican leadership in advance of a Washington Post report on the botched handling of "national security letters," used to obtain e-mails, telephone and financial records of private citizens between 2003 and 2005.
Talking with reporters yesterday, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) rebuffed the suggestion that the report would cause GOP senators to lose confidence in Gonzales, but made clear that he is taking the issue very seriously.
"It shakes my confidence in the organization, which is given a very important power," Kyl said. "And when significant and important powers are given to public officials, there's an obligation to use those powers very carefully."
Kyl said Gonzales "expressed his great disappointment" about the handling of the secret program in their conversation and echoed those thoughts in talks with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.). Gonzales also called Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), one of the most stalwart administration allies in Congress.
The attorney general assured the senators he will "get to the bottom of what occurred and to ensure that process is used appropriately," Kyl said.
The furor over national security letters came as Gonzales was also trying to tamp down Republican discontent with the way he handled the dismissals of the federal prosecutors. Until late this week, the controversy had been largely fueled by Democrats. But after a Justice aide testified in congressional hearings and Gonzales wrote an op-ed column in USA Today saying he had lost "confidence" in the fired prosecutors, several Republicans cried foul.
Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) has emerged as perhaps Gonzales's toughest GOP critic in Congress. He remains furious that his state's U.S. attorney, Daniel Bogden, was dismissed for no apparent reason other than a desire, expressed in congressional testimony by a Justice aide, for "new blood."
Ensign summoned Gonzales to his Senate office on Thursday to discuss the matter, and Gonzales also dispatched Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty to talk with Ensign, according to aides. Ensign, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told Nevada media outlets earlier in the week that he could not "tell you how upset I am at the Justice Department." Yesterday, after the Gonzales and McNulty meetings, he declined to comment on the issue.
Kyl and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) also criticized Gonzales, particularly for his critical comments about the prosecutors' job performance.
Gonzales gave in to Democratic demands that he allow five of his top aides to be interviewed by staff members from the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of its investigation into the motives behind the dismissals. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said yesterday that those interviews will begin within two weeks.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the White House "would have preferred that this had been communicated better from the start, and the Justice Department has said they share that concern. But we are not dwelling -- we're focused on communicating better, providing Congress the information they ask for, and working cooperatively with the Hill."
In an e-mail sent from Brazil, where she is traveling with President Bush, Perino signaled the White House's confidence in both Gonzales and McNulty. "They've worked hard to acknowledge it should have been handled better and are taking appropriate steps to work with the Hill. So they've been accountable and are taking action."
Other White House officials have made little secret of their feeling that the issue has been politicized by Democrats. White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove told a group in Little Rock that some of the prosecutors had been fired because of policy disagreements, and others because of performance issues, an explanation some in the Justice Department have pulled back from.
"This is the right of any president to appoint people to these offices," Rove said in an appearance for the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas. "They serve at the pleasure of the president. My view is that this is unfortunately a very big attempt by some in Congress to make a political stink about it."