Hearing impaired

April 20, 2007

To sum up, here's how the attorney general of the United States explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday how seven U.S. attorneys came to be fired last December, joining an eighth who had been let go earlier:

He was given a list of prosecutors to fire. He didn't at the time know why they were being fired, but he trusted his staff. Since then, he's looked into it and decided that firing them was the right thing to do. He doesn't know who prepared the list, or how. He did have discussions earlier with his staff about some of the attorneys, and their alleged shortcomings, but that was unrelated to the dismissal process.

Also, there's a whole lot he doesn't recall.

Committee Republicans and Democrats alike (with two exceptions) were unable to disguise their incredulity. Either Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has been off in the clouds somewhere, or he's been - what's the word? - imprecise yet again.

When Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland pointed out that five of the fired attorneys were involved in, or alternatively were declining to get pushed into, sensitive political prosecutions, and that this certainly telegraphed to a lot of people that there was a political impetus behind all this, Mr. Gonzales replied: "I have no information to tell me the decision was based on improper motives."

It was his decision (as he pointed out).

A striking measure of the potential for political interference was produced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat. He displayed a chart that showed that during the administration of President Bill Clinton, just four people in the White House were permitted to talk to anyone in the Justice Department about pending cases. In the Bush administration, that number has grown to 417.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, suggested to Mr. Gonzales that he should be held to the same standard of performance as the dismissed prosecutors, and that, judging by his failure to assert leadership or provide decent management throughout this episode, he should be let go.

Paraphrasing Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the words to the musical Oklahoma!, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania observed at the end of the hearing, "I think we've gone about as far as we can go." It was obvious by that point that the attorney general wasn't about to provide the senators with anything that approximated substance - or precision. Senator Specter didn't urge Mr. Gonzales to resign; he counseled him instead to examine his own conscience. It will be interesting to see what the attorney general finds there.

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