WASHINGTON -- It was barely 20 minutes into yesterday's House Judiciary Committee hearing with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, but already the chairman, Michigan Democrat John Conyers Jr., was exasperated.
The Michigan Democrat had posed the simple question at the heart of the federal prosecutors' firing investigation: Who put the eight prosecutors on the list to be dismissed and why?
Gonzales offered a rambling 119-word response about accepting responsibility and assigning an aide to review prosecutors' performance before Conyers cut him off and tried again.
"Tell me, just tell me how the U.S. attorney termination list came to be and who suggested putting most of these U.S. attorneys on the list and why," Conyers implored. "Now that should take about three sentences, but take more, but tell me something."
More than six hours later, the hearing ended and Conyers and other committee members were no closer to what they considered a satisfying answer.
Though the momentum of the now three-month inquiry has seemed to slow, Conyers said the committee would continue to try to determine whether improper White House meddling or other political interference played a role in the dismissals.
Gonzales, perhaps sensing that public attention to the scandal could be waning, appeared more confident and relaxed compared with his widely panned appearance before a Senate panel last month, during which he repeatedly said he did not recall key details about the firings.
"Contrary to being gun-shy, this process is somewhat liberating," Gonzales said in response to a question from Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, about whether the criticism he had endured would make him shrink from confronting prosecutors who aren't pursuing departmental priorities.
In contrast to the Senate hearing, when several Republicans criticized him for evasiveness and mismanagement and one even called for him to resign, House GOP panel members were almost uniformly supportive.
Several didn't bother to ask any questions at all about the dismissed prosecutors, and others disdained the Democrats' pursuit of the topic.
Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the committee, suggested that it might be time to end the investigation.
"If there are no fish in this lake, we should reel in our lines of questions, dock our empty boat and turn to more pressing issues," Smith said.
As he did in his Senate testimony, Gonzales pleaded a faulty memory and also parried questions by pointing out that because the dismissals are under investigation, he couldn't consult with key sources of information, including his former chief of staff and the deputy attorney general.
Gonzales said he believes that his former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, assembled the dismissal list based on a consensus of senior officials, but he has offered no details.
Gonzales' repeated deflections angered some Democrats
After Gonzales was unable to say who had marked a prosecutor for dismissal, Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida remarked, "It's a national secret, isn't it?"
After the hearing, Conyers said that investigators would broaden the focus of their inquiry to look at the replacement of prosecutors in Minnesota and Missouri.
Andrew Zajac writes for the Chicago Tribune.