By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales met privately with top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday to offer an olive branch, but he did not seem too happy about it.
Gonzales had agreed to let Congress limit his powers and interview Justice Department officials as part of an escalating battle over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. He knew that another scandal on FBI abuses was about to break and that some GOP lawmakers were hinting that he was in over his head.
"What else do you want us to do?" the normally taciturn Gonzales asked in exasperation, according to several officials with knowledge of the meeting.
For two years, Gonzales, 51, has led the Justice Department through a series of prominent controversies, including complaints of political meddling in civil rights cases and clashes over the powers of the federal government to detain terrorism suspects and spy on Americans. But under the protection of a Republican Congress, and insulated by his status as one of President Bush's closest confidants, Gonzales emerged largely unscathed.
Now, the former White House counsel finds himself at the center of two of the fiercest political disputes to recently engulf the Bush administration, which is already coping with a deteriorating Iraq war and a newly Democratic Congress. Some of the sharpest criticism has come from fellow Republicans, including a suggestion by Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) that Gonzales may leave office soon.
Bush said yesterday that his administration is working to halt law enforcement abuses of new anti-terrorism intelligence-gathering powers, and he expressed continued confidence in Gonzales and in FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.
Gonzales, who has served Bush for 12 years in Texas and Washington, said in an interview that he remains "focused on my job."
"I don't have the luxury of being discouraged," Gonzales said. "I've got the kind of job where you can't do that."
He added later, referring to the FBI scandal: "If there are questions raised, I have an obligation to make sure that we're doing things in the right way. I expect people to do their jobs. And if they don't, there's going to be accountability."
His comments came at the end of an unquestionably difficult week for Gonzales, who managed to anger lawmakers in both parties by dismissing the U.S. attorney firings in a newspaper column as an "overblown personnel matter." The description did not play well in the wake of public hearings in which several fired prosecutors alleged that they had been the targets of possible intimidation by GOP lawmakers and the Justice Department.
Then came news Friday that the FBI had abused its expanded authority under the USA Patriot Act antiterrorism law to seize the personal records of thousands of Americans and legal residents, a revelation that angered libertarian Republicans as much as liberal Democrats.
The kicker came out of a courtroom in Miami, where federal prosecutors had to admit that the government had lost the videotape of the final interrogation of terrorism suspect Jose Padilla, posing a serious risk to the case.
"It almost seems like no one's in charge at the Justice Department," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said yesterday. "There's just problem after problem after problem, and he doesn't seem to understand the seriousness of what's happened. . . . He doesn't quite understand that it's a new ballgame."
The sharpest and most telling criticism, however, has come from Gonzales's own party.
Specter said before meeting with Gonzales on Thursday that "one day there will be a new attorney general, maybe sooner rather than later." He added later that he did not mean to imply that Gonzales should resign.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said "there ought to be some heads that roll" over the FBI scandal, and he complained about "the ham-handed dismissal" of U.S. attorneys.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), whose U.S. attorney was one of those pushed out, told reporters: "I cannot tell you how upset I am at the Justice Department."
Despite the rising tempers, administration officials and GOP allies say there is no serious talk about resignations for Gonzales or Mueller. Bush said during a stop in Uruguay yesterday that the FBI problems "will be addressed as quickly as possible," and he praised Mueller for apologizing for the errors.
"He took responsibility, as he should," said Bush, who is in the midst of a six-day tour of Latin America. "I've got confidence in Director Mueller, as I do in the attorney general."
But several Washington lawyers and GOP strategists with close ties to the White House said last week that lawmakers and conservative lawyers are nervous that Gonzales may not be up to the job.
"This attorney general doesn't have anybody's confidence," said one GOP adviser to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could be candid. "It's the worst of Bush -- it's intense loyalty for all the wrong reasons. There will be other things that come up, and we don't have a guy in whom we can trust."
Gonzales has always had an uncertain relationship with conservatives, many of whom opposed talk of appointing him to the Supreme Court and suspect that the former Texas state judge is more liberal on abortion and other social issues than they would like. Gonzales's predecessor, John D. Ashcroft, by comparison, was a conservative celebrity who once pondered a run for the White House as an evangelical Christian candidate.
Gonzales said in yesterday's interview that he is unfazed by the recent criticism and is focused on returning attention to his key initiatives, including programs aimed at prosecuting child pornography cases and addressing the rise of violent gangs in some cities.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said initiatives under Gonzales have resulted in a tenfold increase in child-predator cases, a doubling of human-trafficking cases and a doubling of gang-related convictions by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Department officials are preparing a report in response to FBI statistics showing a resurgence in violent crime nationwide after years of decline or stability.
Gonzales said he is confident that he and Democrats in Congress "can find a way to reach common ground" on the U.S. attorneys issue. He said he will also "focus on where we've fallen short" at the FBI.
"We always struggle to do better, and we learn in life that, in most cases, we can do better," he said.
Staff writers Peter Baker in Anchorena Park, Uruguay, and Michael Abramowitz in Washington contributed to this report.