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Talking Points: Time for Answers

Tomorrow, senators will have their first chance to question Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the U.S. attorney purge.

Tomorrow, senators will have their first chance to question Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about why the Justice Department fired eight well-respected U.S. attorneys. Gonzales released his opening statement and published an op-ed in The Washington Post yesterday “denying that any mistakes made by his department amounted to willful misconduct.” But the attorney general will need more than vague statements of denial on Tuesday in front of the Senate. Sixty-seven percent of the American public now believes “the prosecutors were fired by the Justice Department for political reasons, not on the basis of their performance.” “He’s got a steep hill to climb,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA). “He’s going to be successful only if he deals with the facts.”

  • Gonzales has been consistently inconsistent in public — so now it’s time for some answers. On March 12, Gonzales stated, “I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.” But in sworn testimony on March 29, Gonzales’s former chief of staff Kyle Sampson stated, “I don’t think the attorney general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate,” confirming that there were at least five discussions with Gonzales about the issue. In his opening statement, Gonzales writes that suggestions he “intentionally made false statements” about his involvement in the process have been “personally very painful” because he “always sought the truth.” But Gonzales was more than just “aware of the process,” as he states in his testimony for tomorrow. He personally approved the plan to fire a select number of U.S. attorneys after determining that “replacing all 93 U.S. attorneys would be disruptive and unwise.” “The attorney general has serious problems. … I have questions about whether he’s going to be able to generate the level of confidence that’s needed,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-NM).
  • The attorney general must explain why these eight attorneys were fired. On March 7, Gonzales wrote in a USA Today op-ed that the fired prosecutors had lost his “confidence” for “reasons related to policy, priorities, and management.” But in private interviews with staff members on the House and Senate Judiciary committees, Michael Battle, former director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, confirmed that he was “not aware of performance problems with respect to several” of the prosecutors when he called to fire them. While under oath in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sampson insisted, “I did not have in mind any replacements for any of the seven who were asked to resign.” But a new email released to the House Judiciary Committee shows that on Jan. 9, 2006 — a year before the prosecutors were fired — Sampson recommended replacements for almost every one of the U.S. attorneys on the administration’s hit list, suggesting that these prosecutors were fired to make way for partisan loyalists.
  • Evidence is mounting that the White House was directly involved in the firings — Gonzales must detail White House involvement in the firings. As more documents have emerged, it has become clear that the White House was involved in the prosecutor purge. In his opening testimony, Gonzales plans to state, “I also told him [Sampson] to make sure that the White House was kept informed since the U.S. attorneys are presidential appointees.” New documents show that President Bush may have personally approved the firing of U.S. attorney David Iglesias, who received calls from Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) pressuring him to speed up a prosecution of Democrats before the November 2006 election. At some point after the election, Domenici called Rove “and told him he wanted Iglesias out and asked Rove to take his request directly to the president.” Domenici and Bush then had a conversation about Iglesias, which occured “sometime after the election but before the firings of Iglesias and six other U.S. attorneys were announced on Dec. 7.”