Alberto Gonzales: The Recall Attorney General

Beleaguered US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales came under heavy fire in a five-hour Senate panel hearing on Thursday, as Senators from both political parties openly questioned his honesty, judgment and fitness to continue leading the Justice Department.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee also grew impatient with his apparent memory lapses during questioning over the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year. Mr Gonzales responded “I don’t recall” more than 50 times.

When the scandal broke, Mr Gonzales at first denied that he was involved in any discussions about the dismissals, but was forced to change his story when the Justice Department released emails and other documents which revealed that he had attended critical meetings where the purge was discussed. He also backed away from his earlier claim that the White House had not been involved in the dismissals, since the documents confirmed the participation of top Bush administration advisor Karl Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers.

“The reality is that your characterization of your participation is just significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts,” said Senator Arlen Specter (R-Penn.).

Mr Gonzales could not say who determined the fate of the prosecutors and said he could not recall who at the Justice Department and the White House had been involved. He firmly denied partisan political motives.

He conceded that at the time of the prosecutors’ removal, he had not seen their performance reviews and did not know why two of them were being dismissed. He could not recall a final high-level meeting that took place in his office in November to discuss the imminent dismissals, nor did he remember when he decided to carry out the decision to remove the attorneys.

“While the process that led to the resignations was flawed, I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred,” Gonzales said. “It would be improper to remove a US attorney to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain. I did not do that. I would never do that.”

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked Mr Gonzales, “How can you give us those assurances, since you had a limited involvement, the process wasn’t vigorous, and you left it, basically, to somebody else?”

“Well, Senator, since then, of course, I have gone back and looked at the documents made available to Congress,” responded Mr Gonzales, who added that he had also since discussed the matter with other officials at the Justice Department.

By the end of the hearing, it was clear that Mr Gonzales had not inspired the confidence of the Committee. Republican Senators were among his harshest critics.

Senator Specter, the Committee’s ranking Republican, said that the “panorama of responses” offered by Gonzales had contributed to a further “loss of credibility”. He said he will privately offer President Bush his opinion about whether Mr Gonzales should remain Attorney General.

Other Senators were more forthcoming with their opinions.

“There are some very serious problems, Mr Attorney General,” said Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “Your ability to lead the Department of Justice is in question.”

Senator Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) was even more direct. “I believe there’s consequences for mistakes. And I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation,” he said.

However, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino stated that President Bush was “pleased” with the testimony of Mr Gonzales, who still has the “full confidence” of the President.

In the course of the Senate hearing, Mr Gonzales was asked whether he thought he would keep his job if he were subjected to the same vague criteria that he offered as reasons for the dismissals.

“You said something that struck me, that sometimes it just came down to, ‘These were not the right people at the right time’,” said Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “If I applied that standard to you, what would you say?”

“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,” said Mr Gonzales.


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