The Cloud Over Mr. Gonzales

Monday, March 26, 2007

ATTORNEY GENERAL Alberto R. Gonzales's death by a thousand cuts continues. A newly released e-mail revealed that he participated in an hour-long meeting with senior Justice Department officials about a plan to dismiss seven U.S. attorneys. This appears to contradict Mr. Gonzales's assurance that he participated in no such discussions.

A missive dated Nov. 21, from Kyle Sampson, then chief of staff to the attorney general, to Andrew Beach, an assistant in Mr. Gonzales's office, emerged in a 283-page document dump Friday night. "Meeting for next Monday. Re: U.S. Attorney Appointments. 1 hour. AG's conference room. Thx." It lists six people who would attend, including the AG, Mr. Gonzales.

On March 13, Mr. Gonzales said: "I never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood. What I knew was that there was ongoing effort that was led by Mr. Sampson, vetted through the Department of Justice, to ascertain where we could make improvements in U.S. attorney performances around the country."

Mr. Gonzales finds himself in this mess because he and others in his shop appear to have tried to cover up something that, as far as we yet know, didn't need covering. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president -- with the advice and consent of the Senate. The president was entitled to replace any he chose, as long as he wasn't intending to short-circuit ongoing investigations. But the shifting explanations for the eventual dismissals of eight federal prosecutors -- from no explanation to saying performance was at issue to acknowledging that performance was not the issue for all of them -- have Democrats and Republicans calling for candor from Mr. Gonzales.

This latest e-mail is no smoking gun, but it adds to the smoke billowing from a fire that may or may not exist. Did the attorney general forget this meeting when he stated "we never had a discussion"? Then-White House counsel Harriet E. Miers approved the plan on Dec. 4. By Dec. 7, seven attorneys were shown the door. The eighth had been fired months earlier.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the latest e-mail did not contradict the attorney general's previous assertions. He's entitled to explain why not, and he'll get that chance, in congressional testimony after his former chief of staff, Mr. Sampson, testifies Thursday. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) warned yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Mr. Gonzales's appearance will be "make or break."

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