`A question of credibility'

Senators demand explanation from attorney general

March 26, 2007|By Mark Silva | Mark Silva,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales' "credibility" is at stake in an investigation of the dismissals of several federal prosecutors amid disclosures that Gonzales knew more about the firings than he recently has acknowledged, a bipartisan pair of Senate Judiciary Committee members said yesterday.

Gonzales, who has said that he was "not involved in any discussions about what was going on," approved plans for the firings at an hourlong meeting in late November -- two weeks before seven of the dismissals -- according to the latest of many documents that the Justice Department has released.

"Now the attorney general's statement of just a few days ago has been contradicted by a fact," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said on NBC's Meet the Press. "He was involved in a meeting. ... It really raises a question of credibility."

"There are so many contradictions in what the attorney general has already told us," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, who said he talked with Gonzales on Saturday -- the day after the story broke about the attorney general's Nov. 27 meeting on the dismissals. Specter said he told Gonzales "he was going to have to have an explanation as to why he said he was not involved in discussions."

"We have to have an attorney general who is truthful," Specter said. "If we find that he has not been candid and truthful, that is a very compelling reason for him not to stay on."

Another Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, also said more information is needed from Gonzales. "He has said some things that just don't add up," Graham said on CBS' Face the Nation.

Kyle Sampson, the attorney general's former chief of staff who resigned after the dismissals became an issue, is expected to testify before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Gonzales is to testify April 17, Specter said.

"Attorney General Gonzales' testimony will be a make-or-break situation for him," Specter said. "There are a lot of questions to be answered beyond credibility. There's no doubt that what has happened has had a very chilling effect on the United States attorneys across the country."

Asked by Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert about Gonzales' integrity and independence, Specter said: "Let's hear what he has to say. Let's go eyeball-to-eyeball with the man and see what his integrity is. ...

"As to his independence ... there is a real question about whether he has aligned himself too closely with the president," Specter said. "I want to hear from him directly, what he did vis-a-vis the White House, what kind of independence he showed, if any."

With both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees threatening subpoenas for the president's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, and other White House officials, Durbin says the issue may well go beyond the dismissed prosecutors.

"I don't want to go too far," he said. "But sadly, what has happened here raises questions about those other U.S. attorneys who were not dismissed. ... If they dropped eight because they didn't play ball, how many others did play ball? [Did they] prosecute matters that had a political side to them before an election? ... We really have to ask Rove and others these important questions."

Durbin is critical of the White House's refusal to let Rove and others testify under oath in public, instead seeking closed-door interviews with committee members without a transcript kept.

"The White House says, `We have nothing to hide,' but will only testify behind closed doors," Durbin said. "Bring these witnesses before the Judiciary Committee."

Specter is holding out hope that a compromise can be reached with the White House, suggesting that a battle over subpoenas and the executive privilege that the president is invoking will only lead to a protracted court fight, delaying what Congress learns about the dismissals of prosecutors.

"If there is a confrontation here over executive privilege ... it's going to take a long time to decide," Specter said. "The air has to be cleared."

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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