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Senators Chastise Gonzales at Hearing

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales listens to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) at a hearing looking into his role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales listens to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) at a hearing looking into his role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

Much of the uproar, however, has centered on statements by Gonzales and some of his aides about the dismissals that are contradicted by information in e-mails and other documents released by the Justice Department. The conflict has grown to include a showdown between the Bush administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress over access to White House records and employees.

One bit of good news for Gonzales came late in the day, when Specter, the committee's ranking Republican, announced that he will refrain from publicly asking Gonzales to resign. Justice Department officials had said privately that their best hope for yesterday's hearing was to keep key Republicans, particularly Specter, from calling on Gonzales to quit. About half a dozen GOP lawmakers have asked the attorney general to step down.

A Justice Department official said last night that Gonzales's aides consider the lone Republican call for his resignation yesterday a "positive barometer."

"While we realize Senate Republicans are not happy, they are willing to stick with the attorney general," said the official, who spoke about members of Congress on the condition of anonymity.

Specter and Gonzales got off to a rough start, arguing heatedly over the attorney general's preparation for news conferences and hearings. Specter also questioned Gonzales's candor about meetings and conversations on three of the prosecutors that Gonzales had with his staff, White House aides and Bush.

"The reality is that your characterization of your participation is just significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts," Specter said.

By the close of the hearing, Specter told Gonzales that his "panorama of responses" to questions created a "loss of credibility." He said he will privately offer Bush his opinion about whether Gonzales should remain attorney general.

Another Republican on the committee, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), openly questioned whether Gonzales was telling the truth about the reasons behind the firings.

"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?" he asked.

During his opening remarks and subsequent testimony, Gonzales repeatedly said that nothing improper occurred in the firings. He specifically denied that he or other Justice officials removed any prosecutors to influence individual corruption cases.

Committee Democrats argued that standard was overly narrow, and they focused on evidence in testimony and documents that Gonzales had direct involvement in the firing of three prosecutors before his final approval of the plan: Bud Cummins of Little Rock, David C. Iglesias of New Mexico and Carol S. Lam of San Diego.

Gonzales said he made the final decision to approve the firings but took the recommendations of his assistants without closely reviewing their reasons for dismissing each prosecutor. He said his former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, was in charge of the details and updated him only occasionally on his progress. The attorney general said he made a mistake by not being more closely involved in the process.

Gonzales confirmed statements by Sampson that presidential adviser Karl Rove passed along GOP complaints to Gonzales last fall about the alleged lack of aggressiveness by Iglesias and two other U.S. attorneys in prosecuting voter fraud. Gonzales said he passed on the complaints to Sampson, who at some point in the same time period placed Iglesias on the firing list.

The attorney general said he could not remember a similar conversation on Oct. 11 with Bush, who has publicly confirmed the discussion.

While the panel's Democrats focused primarily on the alleged rationale for the firings, many of the Republicans concentrated on Gonzales's declared lack of involvement and inability to remember significant details. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a former U.S. attorney, seemed stunned when Gonzales said he could not recall a crucial Nov. 27 meeting at which a final plan for carrying out the firings was discussed.

"I'm concerned about your recollection, really, because it's not that long ago," Sessions said. "It was an important issue. And that's troubling to me, I've got to tell you."

Several senators asked Gonzales how he would fare under the criteria for removal that were applied to the fired U.S. attorneys.

"You said something that struck me, that sometimes it just came down to 'These were not the right people at the right time,' " Graham said, referring to previous remarks by Gonzales. "If I applied that standard to you, what would you say?"

Gonzales responded: "Senator, what I would say is, is that I believe that I continue to be effective as the attorney general of the United States. We've done some great things."

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