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Another Hearing, Another Chance to Say Nothing

By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 11, 2007

Alberto Gonzales is not a details guy.

During the attorney general's appearance before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, he was tossed a softball question by Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who wanted to know how many lawyers there are in the Justice Department.

Gonzales was flummoxed. "Oh, about, I think, 10,000 to 15,000," he answered.

So, the nation's top law-enforcement official thinks maybe he has 10,000 lawyers on staff -- or maybe he has 50 percent more than that?

For the record, the answer to Lundgren's question is Option A: 10,000 lawyers. This tally, of course, doesn't include the eight U.S. attorneys whose removal Gonzales approved, starting his current woes over alleged politicization of the Justice Department.

But, defying expectations, the list of lawyers working for the Justice Department continues to include Gonzales himself. President Bush's decision to keep Gonzales has confounded lawmakers in both parties who have called for him to go -- but, on the positive side, it gives Gonzales more time to learn all those pesky details about the department he is running.

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) asked what proportion of Justice's resources go to counterterrorism. "I don't know if I can break it down in terms of assets or resources," Gonzales answered.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) asked about a Congressional Research Service report about the Justice Department's firing of U.S. attorneys. "I'm not familiar with the CRS report," the attorney general said.

Low morale at the Justice Department? "I don't know what's the source of that statement." Why a well-respected U.S. attorney was fired? "That's something you'd have to ask others." White House plans to force out another U.S. attorney? "I think I may be aware of that, based on my review. I can't remember."

Finally, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) cruelly turned Gonzales's ignorance against him: "You said you didn't know who put [U.S. Attorney David] Iglesias on the list" to be fired?

"That is correct," Gonzales said.

"But you said you knew the president and the vice president didn't," Cohen pointed out. "How do you know they didn't?"

Gonzales paused, trapped. "Well, I just know that they would not do that," he said.

However befuddled the witness became, he was clearly confident that Bush would let him keep his job. In contrast to the man who took a beating before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month -- when even Republican senators disparaged him -- Gonzales literally laughed at his questioners yesterday. He chuckled while answering Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), and shook his head and grinned while listening to Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). The attorney general's coyness about the U.S. attorney firings enraged Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). "You know who put them on the list, but you won't tell us!" Wexler blurted out.

Gonzales only smiled.

The witness was already grinning when he hopped out of his SUV in the morning, accompanied by a dozen aides and bodyguards. Sitting at the witness table, he clenched his jaw, narrowed his eyes and, for the benefit of the cameras, kept his gaze fixed on Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.).

"These points are basically the same ones that I made before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month," Gonzales said in his opening statement. "My feelings and recollections about this matter have not changed since that time."

As the questions came, Gonzales remained approximately the same temperature as the ice water in his pitcher. Sanchez asked whether he saw a possible conflict of interest in a law firm hiring a U.S. attorney who was investigating one of the firm's clients. "Not at all," Gonzales said. Later, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) pressed him about a report about voter fraud. Gonzales interrupted her. "Are you basing your questions based on a newspaper article?" he asked disdainfully. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) asked about a long-running corruption investigation. "At the appropriate time, they'll take the appropriate action," the attorney general advised.

Gonzales went so far as to imply that those seeking to investigate the U.S. attorney dismissals were compromising the fight against terrorists. "If the American people don't believe you about this matter, how can they have confidence in other things you claim?" asked Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

"I think the American people are most concerned about the things that I alluded to earlier, Congressman, and that is, is our country safe from terrorism?"

Most Republicans on the committee, parting with their GOP colleagues in the Senate, rallied to Gonzales's aid. "How are these investigations impacting your ability and the office's ability to go after some of these other concerns?" Randy Forbes (R-Va.) inquired.

The terror card came out again. "I have an obligation to try to reassure Congress that nothing improper happened here," Gonzales said. "But on the other hand, I also have an obligation facing terrorism, that our neighborhoods are safe and our kids are safe, and so we've got to somehow make that work."

Feeney, who is under investigation by the Justice Department for his role in the Jack Abramoff affair, pronounced himself satisfied with the man in charge of that department. "It's important to ask these questions," he said, "but it's not important to ask the same questions to the same people ad infinitum."

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