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2007-04-20

Gonzales Grilled by GOP and Dems at Hearing, Says Can’t Recall 50+ Times

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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s future at the Justice Department is in further doubt following his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. In more than five hours of testimony, Gonzales claimed more than 50 times that he could not recall certain events. Lawmakers repeatedly confronted him with documents and sworn testimony that showed he was more involved in the dismissals than he has contended. We play excerpts. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s future at the Justice Department is in further doubt today following his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Gonzales was questioned Thursday in the continued probe into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. In more than five hours of testimony, Gonzales claimed more than 50 times he could not recall certain events, including a conversation with President Bush. In his opening testimony, Gonzales apologized for the handling of the firings but said they were justified.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Those eight attorneys deserve better. They deserve better from me and from the Department of Justice, which they served selflessly for many years. Each is a fine lawyer and dedicated professional. I regret how they were treated, and I apologize to them and to their families for allowing this matter to become an unfortunate and undignified public spectacle. I accept full responsibility for this.

Second, I want to address allegations that I have failed to tell the truth about my involvement in these resignations. These attacks on my integrity have been very painful to me. Now, to be sure, I have been — I should have been more precise when discussing this matter. I understand why some of my statements generated confusion, and I have subsequently tried to clarify my words. My misstatements were my mistakes, no one else’s, and I accept complete and full responsibility here, as well. That said, I’ve always sought the truth, in every aspect of my professional and personal life. This matter has been no exception. I never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people. To the contrary, I have been extremely forthcoming with information. As a result, this committee has thousands of pages of internal Justice Department communications and hours of interviews with department officials. And I’m here today to do my part to ensure that all facts about this matter are brought to light. These are not the actions of someone with something to hide.

Finally, let me be clear about this: While the process that led to the resignations was flawed, I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. There is nothing improper in making a change for poor management, policy differences or questionable judgment or simply to have another qualified individual serve. I think we agree on that. I think we also agree on what would be improper. It would be improper to remove a U.S. attorney to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain. I did not do that. I would never do that. Nor, do I believe that anyone else in the department advocated the removal of a U.S. attorney for such a purpose.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Earlier, Judiciary Chair Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont gave his opening remarks.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Today, the Department of Justice is experiencing a crisis of leadership, perhaps unrivaled during its 137-year history. There’s a growing scandal swirling around the dismissal and replacement of several prosecutors and persistent efforts to undermine and marginalize career lawyers in the Civil Rights Division and elsewhere in the department. We heard disturbing reports that politics played a role in the growing number of cases. And I’ve warned for years against the lack of prosecutorial experience and judgment throughout the leadership ranks of the department. We’re seeing the results, amid rising crime and rampant war profiteering, abandonment of civil rights and voting rights enforcement efforts, and lack of accountability. It appears the Justice Department may be losing its way.

The Department of Justice should never be reduced to another political arm of the White House, this White House or any White House. The Department of Justice must be worthy of its name. The trust and confidence of the American people and federal law enforcement must be restored.

Since Attorney General Gonzales last appeared before this committee on January 18, we’ve heard sworn testimony from the former U.S. attorneys forced from office and from his former chief of staff. Their testimony sharply contradicts the accounts of the plan to replace U.S. attorneys that the attorney general provided to this committee under oath — under oath — in January and to the American people during his March 13 press conference. One thing abundantly clear is if the phrase "performance-related" is to retain any meaning, that rationale should be withdrawn as the justification for the firing of David Iglesias, John McKay, Daniel Bogden, Paul Charlton, Carol Lam, and perhaps others. Indeed, the apparent reason for these terminations has a lot more to do with politics than performance. In his written testimony for this hearing, in his newspaper columns, the attorney general makes the conclusory statement that nothing improper occurred. The truth is that these firings haven’t been explained, and there is mounting evidence of improper considerations and actions resulting in the dismissals.

So I do not excuse the attorney general’s actions and his failure from the outset to be forthright with us, with these prosecutors, but especially with the American people. The White House political operatives who helped spearhead this plan did not have an effective and objective law enforcement as their principal goal. They would be happy to reduce United States attorneys’ offices to just another political arm of the administration. If nothing improper was done, people need to stop hiding the facts and tell the truth and the whole truth. If the White House did nothing wrong, then show us. Show us the documents and provide us with a sworn testimony — a sworn testimony — of what was done, why and by whom. If there’s nothing to hide, the White House should stop hiding it.

AMY GOODMAN: Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The session became testy when Republican Senator Arlen Specter questioned Gonzales, but we’ll get to that after this break.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We return to the Gonzales hearings. The session became testy when Republican Senator Arlen Specter questioned Gonzales about his initial claim that he was not involved in discussions about the firings.

ALBERTO GONZALES: I prepare for every hearing, Senator.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Do you prepare for all your press conferences? Were you prepared for the press conference where you said there weren’t any discussions involving you?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I’ve already said that I misspoke. It was my mistake.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I’m asking you, were you prepared? You interjected that you’re always prepared. Were you prepared for that press conference?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Sir, I didn’t say that I was always prepared. I said I prepared for every hearing.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, then, I’m asking you: Do you prepare for your press conferences?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, we do take time to try to prepare for the press conference.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: And were you prepared when you said you weren’t involved in any deliberations?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I’ve already conceded that I misspoke at that press conference. There was nothing intentional. And the truth of the matter is, Senator, I —

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Let’s move on. I don’t think you’re going to win a debate about your preparation, frankly. But let’s get to the facts. I’d like you to win this debate, Attorney General Gonzales.

ALBERTO GONZALES: I appreciate that.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I’d like you to win this debate.

ALBERTO GONZALES: I apologize, Senator.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: But you’re going to have to win it.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Gonzales was later questioned by California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Whose idea was it to change the law in an amendment written by your staff, conveyed by your staff, Mr. Michela, to Senator Specter’s staff, Brett Tolman, on or about November 15, 2005, to add in conference, without sharing it with any member of this committee, an amendment which effectively gave you the ability to replace U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation? Whose idea was this?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I don’t recall specifically the genesis of the idea, although in going back and looking at the documents, it appears that there was some thinking about this as early as 2004. I will say this: I do support —- I did support the change in the law, not in order to avoid Senate involvement, but because I, quite frankly, do not like the idea of the Judiciary deciding who serves on my staff, and that’s why it’s important to -—

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: So you essentially approved it being conveyed to the Senate in the manner in which it was conveyed?

ALBERTO GONZALES: No, that’s not what I’m saying. I don’t have any recollection about the mechanics of getting it —- of the legislative process -—

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: So you don’t have a recollection. OK, let me go on, because my time is short. I’m very confused. I’m unsure whether you were really the decider on this list or not, because your written comments printed yesterday say, "I did not make decisions about who should or should not be asked to resign." Today, you said three different things: "I accepted the decision of the staff," "I accepted the recommendations of the staff," and then, sort of a vague statement, "I made my decision." Who was the decider?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I accepted the recommendations made by the staff. I’m the attorney general. I make the decision.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales questioned by California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. Later, it was Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin’s turn.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: And I think what we have heard here about some of the political considerations — comments about loyal Bushies by Kyle Sampson, the involvement of Mr. Rove in decisions about the fate of some of these U.S. attorneys — raises a serious question as to whether or not your continued service is going to make it difficult for professional prosecutors in the Department of Justice to do their job effectively.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, if I could respond, I think — again, it’s absolutely true that this is not about Alberto Gonzales. It’s about what’s best for the department and whether or not I can continue to be effective in leading this department. I believe that I can be. I think that there are some good things that, working with this committee, I can accomplish on behalf of this country. Clearly, there are issues that I have to deal with, and I’m going to work as hard as I can to reestablish trust and confidence with this committee and members of Congress and, of course, with the career professionals at our department. And all the credit, everything that we do, the credit goes to them, and so when there are attacks against the department, you’re attacking the career professionals.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Now, Mr. Gonzales, that is like saying if I disagree with the president’s policy on the war, I’m attacking the soldiers.

ALBERTO GONZALES: But I’m saying that you should attack me. You should attack me.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: The fact of the matter is that your conduct of this department — your conduct of this department has made it more difficult for these professionals to do their job effectively.

ALBERTO GONZALES: And I’m going to deal with that.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: And if you ignore that reality then you cannot be effective as an attorney general.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I understand that, and I’m going to work at that. What I’m saying is, is that — be careful about criticizing the department. Criticize me.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Mr. Gonzales, this testimony today is from you about your reputation. It is not about the reputation of the men and women working in these offices.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Thank you, Senator.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Dick Durbin questioning Gonzales. Perhaps the day’s most surprising moment came when Gonzales was questioned by Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

SEN. TOM COBURN: You said earlier, this was an unfortunate episode. You also said that these attorneys were evaluated based on their leadership skills and management skills. And you answered a question from Senator Graham earlier about your position in light of all this. Why would we not use the same standards to judge your performance in handling this event that you applied to these same individuals?

ALBERTO GONZALES: I think that’s a fair question, Senator, and I think that I clearly made mistakes here. Clearly. And I accept responsibility for those mistakes, Senator. I’ve tried to identify where those mistakes were made and to institutionalize where we can make changes to make the department even stronger. I think the department, under my leadership in the past two years, I think we’ve done some great things. I think the department has been managed in a good way. This has not been managed in a good way, and I accept responsibility for that. But I still continue to have great faith in the career people at the department. Cases still continue. Investigations still continue. Obviously, I have a lot of work to do to restore confidence and trust. I am committed to doing that.

SEN. TOM COBURN: That’s not what I asked you. I said why should you not be judged by the same standards at which you judged these dismissed U.S. attorneys?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, again, I’ve identified my mistakes, and you’ll make your decisions based upon my testimony, based upon the review of the record, in terms of what has happened, or based upon the testimony of others. And, Senator, what I can commit to you is that I have acknowledged mistakes. We all make mistakes. And I’m committed to addressing those mistakes and working with you to make our country even stronger.

SEN. TOM COBURN: Well, I believe there’s consequences to a mistake. I was quoted in the paper saying I think this has been handled in a very incompetent manner, and I believe most people — I don’t care which side of the aisle they are — would agree with that. U.S. attorneys’ reputation, that were involved, has been harmed. The confidence in U.S. attorneys throughout this country has been damaged. The reputation of the Attorney General’s Office has been tarnished and brought into question.

I disavow aggressively any implication that there was a political nature in this. I know that’s the politics of the blood sport that we’re playing. I don’t think it had anything to do with it.

But, to me, there has to be consequences to accepting responsibility. And I would just say, it’s — Mr. Attorney General, it’s my considered opinion that the exact same standards should be applied to you in how this was handled. It was handled incompetently. The communication was atrocious. It was inconsistent. It’s generous to say that there were misstatements. That’s a generous statement. And I believe you ought to suffer the consequences that these others had suffered, and I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Republican Senator Tom Coburn. With those words, he became the first Republican member of the Judiciary Committee to call on the attorney general to resign. Later, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York questioned Gonzales about the firing of San Diego prosecutor, Carol Lam. Gonzales had earlier claimed the Justice Department had told Lam of concerns over her lack of prosecution of immigration cases, but, as Schumer pointed out, Gonzales was contradicted by both Lam and Gonzales former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: You told Senator Feinstein that Carol Lam was, quote — these are your words — "acutely aware of the department’s concerns about her immigration enforcement." Now, let me read to you a portion of Mr. Sampson’s public testimony on March 29. He said, quote, "I’m not suggesting that someone did give Carol Lam notice." These are his words. "I think we did not give. No one, to my knowledge, talked to Carol Lam about the concerns we had in the leadership of the department about her office’s immigration enforcement." Now, this is Kyle Sampson, the man you said was at the center of the whole decision-making process, saying she was not given notice. And yet, a few minutes ago you told Senator Feinstein that she was, quote, "acutely aware."

ALBERTO GONZALES: Notice of what?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Which is right?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Notice of what, Senator?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Notice, both cases, of immigration enforcement. Both —

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I’m not going to characterize Mr. Sampson’s testimony. What I will tell you is what I recall, and I will tell you what I have learned from looking at the documents. And I believe that in looking at the documents there was communication with Miss Lam about how she was doing with respect to immigration. There was a lot of communication by members of Congress with Miss Lam about immigration. And so, she was aware that there was some concern — certainly interest — about how she was doing in immigration. Otherwise, why would we contact her?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Senator Feinstein just informs me Carol Lam was not aware of the immigration — of the Justice Department’s views on her prosecution of immigration. Kyle Sampson says she was not aware. And you are saying that the department made her aware. And this is what we’ve been through all morning. The people that we have interviewed, whether it’s Kyle Sampson or Mercer or Battle, have contradictory statements as to what you say. Now, I am sure when the department has trouble with the U.S. attorney, they don’t tell a congressman to go tell her. Which is right?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I recall that sitting in a meeting, concerned about Miss Lam, and saying that those numbers needed to change. And I expected that information to be communicated. Now, Miss Lam may not have been told that, in fact, if you don’t change your policies, there’s going to be a change, but I believe, looking at the documents — and I never spoke to her directly — but I believe, looking at the documents, that she had knowledge that there certainly was an interest about her immigration numbers. And why would we have an interest, but for the fact that we were concerned about those numbers?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Kyle Sampson said no one told her. She said no one told her.

ALBERTO GONZALES: No one told her what? No one told her that there was any interest or concern? Or no one told her that if you don’t change, you’re going to be removed?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: I’ll yield to my colleague.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: If I may, Attorney General, Carol Sampson said she was never spoken to by the department —

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Carol Lam.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Yeah, excuse me. Carol Lam said she was never spoken to by the department about their concern on her immigration.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Now, let me just say, Mr. Attorney General, this is a serious hearing. You’ve had months to prepare. The U.S. attorney in question says she wasn’t spoken to. Kyle Sampson, at public testimony, not the private transcripts, not a private conversation, says the same.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I didn’t say — I did not say that Miss Lam was aware that if her numbers didn’t change we would ask her to resign. What I said was that she was aware of the concerns, and certainly the interests, that we had about her performance. There’s no question about that. If you look at the letters, if you look at the email communication, there is no question about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales responding to questions from New York Senator Chuck Schumer about the firing of San Diego prosecutor Carol Lam. Schumer continued to grill Gonzales about his role in the U.S. attorney firings. This is how their exchange ended.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And, Mr. Attorney General, at the beginning of the hearing, we laid out the burden of proof for you to meet, to answer questions directly and fully, to show that you were truly in charge of the Justice Department, and, most of all, to convincingly explain who, when, and why the eight U.S. attorneys were fired. You’ve answered "I don’t know" or "I can’t recall" to close to a hundred questions. You’re not familiar with much of the workings of your own department. And we still don’t have convincing explanations of the who, when and why, in regard to the firing of the majority of the eight U.S. attorneys. Thus, you haven’t met any of these three tests. I don’t see any point in another round of questions. And I urge you to reexamine your performance and, for the good of the department and the good of the country, step down. Mr. Chairman, I yield. I yield my time.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Thank you.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Mr. Chairman, may I respond?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Of course, you may.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Respectfully, Senator Schumer, I think all Cabinet officials should ask themselves every day what’s best for the department that you lead, and it’s something that I ask myself every day. I agree with you that I have the burden of proof of providing to you the reasons why I made my decision, but the burden of proof as to whether or not something improper happened here, respectfully, Senator, I think lies upon those making the allegations. And I’ve done everything I can to help you meet your burden of proof, in terms of coming up here and testifying and making other DOJ officials available and providing documentation. But I think in terms of whether or not something improper has happened here, respectfully, Senator, I think that burden lies upon you and others who are alleging that something improper happened here.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Mr. Chairman, that would be true if this were a criminal trial, sir. Our standard for attorney general isn’t simply no criminal standard. It’s a much higher standard than that. And when you answer so many questions "I don’t know," "I can’t recall," when major details of important issues are not at your fingertips or even in your knowledge, and most of all — no, sir, when you fire U.S. attorneys, the burden is on you to give a full, complete and convincing explanation as to why. And people on both sides of the aisle fail to get that. So, sir, in my view, no, no, no. When you fire people who have good evaluations, who have devoted themselves to this country, the burden of proof lays on the person who did the firing, who took responsibility for the firing.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. The session came to a close moments later. As the attorney general shook hands with committee members, Gonzales was met with one last refrain of protest from the gathered crowd.

CROWD: Na, na, na, na, Gonzales, goodbye!

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