US attorney furor: no end in sight

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before Congress Tuesday in a crucial moment for the Bush administration.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales remains in his job or not, the furor over fired US prosecutors seems set to continue for weeks to come.

That's because key members of Congress say that they'll press for documents related to the case, and for further information about possible White House involvement, regardless of who heads the Department of Justice.

The matter of the prosecutors has thus expanded from a narrow inquiry into a multiheaded investigation that could result in direct legal conflict between the legislative and executive branches of the US government.

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"This is just not going to go away," says Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Gonzales's April 17 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee still remains a crucial moment, both for himself and the administration.

Thus the Justice Department took the unusual step of releasing Gonzales's prepared testimony two days prior to his actual appearance. That helped ensure at least one day of news coverage that centered on the main point he apparently wishes to make: that he has "nothing to hide" about the dismissals of the eight US attorneys, but also has a hazy memory about his involvement in the firing process.

Judiciary panel members said that the testimony was not specific enough, and that Gonzales would have to answer questions about why particular individuals were asked to resign if he wanted to regain their trust.

"He's got a steep hill to climb," said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee's top Republican. "He's going to be successful only if he deals with the facts."

In one sense, it's surprising that Gonzales remains on the job, given that pundits for weeks have been predicting his imminent demise. But the attorney general appears to have maintained the support of President Bush, although even that may have limits. Both Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have stated publicly that Gonzales has some repair work to do on his relations with Capitol Hill.

To this point, it appears that the person who decides whether he keeps his job may be Gonzales himself.

"The president seems inclined to not fire him, but to allow him to resign, if it comes to that," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

But even if Gonazles quits, the questions are likely to continue. The furor has now gone on long enough, and raised enough questions about internal administration actions that the Democratic congressional majority is unlikely to let it fade away.

Last week, for instance, the White House acknowledged that it cannot find four years worth of e-mails from political strategist Karl Rove. Some of the missing communications from Mr. Rove's Republican Party account may deal with the prosecutor matter.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D), of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has served notice that he intends to pursue the matter of the missing missives – via subpoena, if necessary.

And of all the new Democratic committee chairmen, Representative Waxman is one of the most persistent in the hunt, notes Norm Ornstein of AEI.

"Henry is not going to let go of the e-mail furor," says Mr. Ornstein. "He will use every weapon at his disposal."

White House officials insist there is nothing nefarious in the e-mail deletions, and that they are attempting to undo them. Rove was simply cleaning up his electronic in-box, a routine millions of US workers know well, said his lawyer on April 13.

Meanwhile, the methodical nature of the congressional investigation into the entire prosecutor matter may well bring the legislature into further conflict with the executive branch. The Senate Judiciary Committee, for instance, started from the ground up, getting public testimony from Gonzales and former chief of staff Kyle Sampson, and private statements from other mid-level Justice officials. They are likely to check these statements against Gonzales's testimony for discrepancies.

They are still also likely to want to hear statements from White House officials, including Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. The administration's position is that Rove and Ms. Miers would appear only in private, would not be sworn in, and would not have their words transcribed.

If both sides persist in their views, a legal battle over the extent of the president's executive privilege could well result. Such a fight could last for years, note experts.

Sen. Arlen Specter, among others, have speculated that both sides might eventually agree to a private interview of Rove and Miers, if a transcript were made.

"I would hope they would be able to reach a middle ground compromise on executive privilege," says Mr. Tobias.

Wire services were used in this story.

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