Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Gonzales Thinks He Will Skate

In a widening storm over the firings of top federal prosecutors, Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales admitted Tuesday that "mistakes were made" and promised accountability, but pleaded ignorance of the details of the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys.

Gonzales, a longtime confidant of President Bush, said he wouldn't step down in the face of heated criticism of his management of the Justice Department.

Gonzales has come under increasingly harsh scrutiny as new information about the politically tinged circumstances of the firings has come to light. And last week, the Justice Department's inspector general issued a scathing report documenting the FBI's abuse of surveillance powers under the USA Patriot Act, raising new questions about Gonzales' ability to lead the nation's chief federal law-enforcement agency.

"I am here because I've learned from my mistakes, because I accept responsibility and because I'm committed to doing my job, and that is what I intend to do here on behalf of the American people," Gonzales said at a news conference in which he defended the firings.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Gonzales' acceptance of responsibility didn't go far enough and he repeated a call, first made Sunday, for Gonzales to step down.

D. Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, came up with a checklist. He rated each of the prosecutors with criteria that appeared to value political allegiance as much as job performance.

He recommended retaining "strong U.S. attorneys who have … exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general." He suggested "removing weak U.S. attorneys who have ... chafed against administration initiatives."

Those words are enshrined in some 150 pages of e-mails and other documents the White House turned over Tuesday to the Senate and House Judiciary committees. The panels are looking into allegations that the firings were motivated by political reasons rather than the prosecutors' performance, as the Justice Department has said.

"Does this reflect what [Bush] wants in [terms of] openness and candor in his administration?" (Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate Judiciary committee chairman) asked, voicing frustration and anger over Justice's initial dismissal of the prosecutor firings as routine personnel decisions. Leahy listed several witnesses whom he plans to question publicly, including Gonzales and his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who resigned yesterday, as well as senior Bush adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.

With Mr. Bush traveling in Mexico, the White House insisted that the president's role had been minimal and laid the blame primarily on Harriet E. Miers, who was White House counsel when the prosecutors lost their jobs and who stepped down in January.

"The White House did not play a specific role in the list of the seven U.S. attorneys," said Dan Bartlett, Mr. Bush's counselor, referring to a Justice Department roster of those to be dismissed. But he said the White House, through Ms. Miers's office, ultimately "signed off on the list."

Mr. Bartlett said it was "highly unlikely" that Mr. Rove would testify publicly to Congress but added, "That doesn't mean we won't find other ways to try to share that information."

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