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Firings furor puts Gonzales on hot seat

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 15, 2007


Facing criticism on Capitol Hill over the firings of eight US attorneys, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged this week that "mistakes were made." But one of them was not a failure to anticipate controversy.

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"Prepare to Withstand Political Upheaval" was Step 3 of a five-part plan to carry out the firings, outlined by Mr. Gonzales's chief of staff in a December e-mail three days before the dismissals. "US Attorneys desiring to save their jobs ... likely will make efforts to preserve themselves in office," wrote D. Kyle Sampson to the White House on Dec. 4. "We should expect these efforts to be strenuous."

So far, Mr. Sampson himself is the first casualty of the ensuing "political upheaval," resigning his post on Monday. But some in Congress are calling for the attorney general to step down as well.

E-mail records and documents the Justice Department released to Congress Tuesday to clarify why the US attorneys were fired – and what role the White House may have played – have only further stoked lawmaker ire. At first, lawmakers mainly wanted to know if the firings were a political purge involving the White House – and if a little-noted provision added last year to the USA Patriot Act at the request of the Justice Department was put there to facilitate it.

Now, members on both sides of the aisle also want to know if the attorney general and other officials deliberately misled them in briefings and testimony about the fired US attorneys.

"I boiled over when I read information I had not been told," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, referring to the documents on the firings. "I don't want briefings any more. I didn't get answers. I now want open hearings, under oath."

Gonzales has promised to cooperate with the Senate Judiciary investigation. Still, when the panel meets Thursday, it will decide whether to authorize subpoenas for five Justice Department officials to testify under oath, in the case that cooperation is not forthcoming.

Senator Leahy and the panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, are also requesting appearances by three White House officials: Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, and her deputy White House counsel, William Kelley, who are cited in released documents. In Mexico with President Bush, White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Tuesday it is "highly unlikely" that a member of the White House staff would testify publicly. "But that doesn't mean we won't find other ways to try to share that information," he added.

"Make no mistake about it: This has become as serious as it gets," says Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, who chaired two previous Senate hearings over the firings. "To invoke [executive] privilege and have a lengthy court proceeding will only delay, not prevent, the facts from getting out." Republicans note that Senator Schumer also chairs the campaign arm of the Senate Democratic caucus.