Gonzales stonewalls irritated Senate panel

first_imgWASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, trying to salvage his job, endured withering questioning Thursday from Senate Judiciary Committee members who expressed grave doubts about his truthfulness and judgment in the firing of federal prosecutors. In more than five hours of often-combative testimony, Gonzales, who sat grim-faced, clasping his hands and hunched over, struggled to offer a coherent explanation for the firings. He apologized for his mistakes in what he described as a flawed process, but defended the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys as proper. “Although the process was nowhere near as rigorous or structured as it should have been, and while reasonable people might decide things differently, my decision to ask for the resignations of these U.S. attorneys is justified,” Gonzales said. His performance clearly exasperated the committee members, including Republicans, who were angered as he invoked a faulty memory more than 50 times. Two senators – Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. – called for him to resign. Other Republicans added their complaints. Coburn later told Gonzales, “I believe you ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., dismissed Gonzales’ explanations of the removals as a “stretch,” questioning whether the Justice Department was trying “to make up reasons to fire them because we wanted to get rid of them.” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Gonzales’ memory lapses about key events were “troubling.” The furor over the firings has provoked a clash between Congress and the Bush administration over access to documents and testimony from top aides, including political adviser Karl Rove. The U.S. attorneys are confirmed by the Senate after being nominated by the president, but they can be removed at any time by the administration. Democrats continued to question whether the firings were politically motivated, and therefore, improper, an accusation that generated the vociferous debate that has already forced two senior Justice officials to resign. Gonzales provided few new facts about the dismissals Thursday, instead often expressing a lack of recall about details of key conversations and events. He can’t remember They included: A conversation he concedes occurred in October 2006 with Bush about complaints the president had received that three U.S. attorneys had failed to prosecute voting-fraud cases. A meeting in late November with his senior staff in which the firing plan, then in its final stages, was discussed. Whether Gonzales had ever spoken with a top aide about firing Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, who was then leading the leak investigation in the Valerie Plame case. That resulted in the perjury conviction of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the vice president’s former chief of staff. How the entire idea of firing a certain number of the prosecutors originated. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who is the committee chairman, expressing annoyance, pressed Gonzales about whether he had, as he has previously said, approved the firings sometime late last year. “Well, how can you be sure you made the decision?” Leahy asked. “Senator, I recall making the decision from this – I recall making the decision,” Gonzales replied. “When?” Leahy responded. “Senator,” Gonzales replied. “I don’t recall when the decision was made.” Gonzales, an American flag pin on his lapel, began the morning smiling, patting members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on their backs and arms as he greeted them. But the tone quickly changed. As Leahy delivered his opening remarks, the attorney general was shaking his head back and forth, signaling “no,” as if rejecting what would be hours worth of criticism of his performance. In past appearances on Capitol Hill, Gonzales has been unflappable and polite, while giving often uninformative testimony. But at times Thursday, he was impatient and testy, demanding copies of documents cited by senators and leaning forward in his chair, jabbing his index finger on the witness table to make a point. In his opening statement, Gonzales blamed others for “attacks on my integrity,” and for wrongly suggesting that he had intentionally misled the public about his role in the firings. Instead, he said, he had been imprecise. “My misstatements were my mistakes, no one else’s, and I accept complete and full responsibility here, as well,” he said. “I never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people.” Gonzales seemed to make a plea to stay on as the nation’s chief legal officer. “I have learned important lessons from this experience,” he said. “I believe that Americans focus less on whether someone makes a mistake than on what he or she does to set things right.” Panel unsatisfied But the Judiciary Committee members, for the most part, seemed unsatisfied with Gonzales’ explanations, saying the rationales he and other department officials had offered for the firings had changed so many times, they were not sure which explanation to believe. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., noted that five of the seven prosecutors fired in early December were involved in corruption investigations of government officials. “Don’t you see that this might have been interpreted as trying to send a message to U.S. attorneys around the country to stay away from sensitive political-corruption cases?” Cardin asked. Gonzales said he considered it a fair question, but that it was an unjustified fear. “We follow the evidence; we make decisions based on the evidence and not based upon if the target is a Republican or Democrat,” he said. In retrospect, Gonzales said he would have handled the removals differently. He said he should have been more involved, given aides more explicit descriptions of factors to use in evaluating the U.S. attorneys and insisted that there be face-to-face meetings with those identified for possible removal. After Gonzales listed the reasons for each dismissal, Graham expressed skepticism that those were, in fact, the criteria used. “Mr. Attorney General, most of this is a stretch. I think it’s clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or at the White House and, you know, we made up reasons to fire them. “Some of it sounds good, some of it doesn’t, and that’s the lesson to be learned here.” Despite weeks of criticism and questions about his credibility, Gonzales gave no sign that he plans to step down. Responding to a question from Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., about whether he can still lead the Justice Department, Gonzales said: “I have to know in my heart that I can continue to be effective as the leader of this department. “Sitting here today, I believe that I can. And every day I ask myself that question: Can I continue to be effective as leader of this department? The moment I believe I can no longer be effective, I will resign as attorney general.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! At the end of the hearing, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the ranking Republican on the panel, said, “I think we have gone about as far as we can go,” adding, “We have not gotten, really, answers.” The White House said Thursday that Gonzales retained President George W. Bush’s “full confidence,” adding that Bush “was pleased with his testimony.” Truth questioned Specter opened the hearing with a clear warning to the attorney general, whose previous accounts of the circumstances of the dismissals have been contradicted by other witnesses and e-mail records released in recent weeks. “We have to evaluate whether you are really being forthright,” Specter said. “Your characterization of your participation is significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts.” last_img

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