Attorney General Alberto Gonzales strained credulity this morning at his Senate hearings before the Judiciary Oversight committee.
His testimony was incoherent, evasive, and contradictory, and left senators from both sides of the aisle frustrated and in ill humor.
But he looked good. That 25-day pre-bout training period seems to have paid off. With nary a grimace or smirk, he answered his questioners with a straight face (one might say manfully), as if daring them to call him a liar to his face; which they more or less did, starting with Arlen Specter (R-PA):
"We have to evaluate whether you are really being forthright," Sen. Arlen Specter bluntly informed the nation's chief law enforcement officer.The Pennsylvania Republican said Gonzales' description of his involvement in the firings of eight federal prosecutors was "significantly if not totally at variance with the facts."
"The purpose of this Senate oversight hearing is to determine this committee's judgement as to whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should continue in that capacity," said Sen. Arlen Specter, the panel's ranking Republican.
"This is a reconfirmation hearing," Specter told Gonzales.
Gonzales appeared before the committee three weeks after his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, testified to the same panel that the attorney general was more deeply involved in the firings than Gonzales had initially acknowledged.
Subsequently, Gonzales modified his stand. He said he did participate in discussions about the firings but that his role was largely limited to signing off on the dismissals following a department review.
Here's a taste of the exchange between Specter and Gonzales:
SEN. SPECTER: Okay. Now, we've got to evaluate -- and this is a final statement before I yield -- as to whether the limited number of circumstances that I recited -- and it's only a limited number; there are many, many more -- whether you are being candid in saying that you were involved only to a limited -- you only had a, quote, "limited involvement in the process," as to being candid and also as to having sound judgment, if you consider that limited.
And as we recite these, we have to evaluate whether you are really being forthright and saying that you, quote, "should have been more precise," closed quote, when the reality is that your characterization of your participation is just total -- significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts.
ATTY GEN. GONZALES: Senator, you're talking about a series of events that occurred over possibly 700 days. I probably had thousands of conversations during that time, and so putting it in context, Senator, I would say that my involvement was limited. I think that is an accurate statement. It was limited involvement.
And with respect to certain communications -- such as the communication with the president, such as the discussions about Carol Lam -- I did not view it at the time as part of this review process. I simply considered those as doing part of my job. We'd heard complaints about the performance of Ms. Lam. I directed the department to try to ascertain whether or not those complaints were legitimate, and if not, we ought to look at perhaps doing something about it.
SEN. SPECTER: The chairman says I can ask one more question. You're saying it's not part of the process, it's not a part of your job? Is that what you're saying?
ATTY GEN. GONZALES: Senator --
SEN. SPECTER: Because if you are, I don't understand it.
ATTY GEN. GONZALES: Senator, I didn't consider this part of this project that Mr. Sampson was working on. I -- simply because we had this process ongoing by Mr. Sampson doesn't mean that we -- that I quit doing my job as attorney general of supervising the work of the United States attorneys, and that's what I
attempted to do.
SEN. LEAHY: But it was intimately connected with her qualifications to stay on.
ATTY GEN. GONZALES: Senator, of course in hindsight I look back now that of course that that may have affected the recommendations made to me, yes. But, Senator, when I focused on those complaints, I wasn't thinking about this process, to remove U.S. attorneys. When I was focusing on a complaint that I had received about her performance, that's what I was focused on. I wasn't focused on the review process itself. I wasn't focused on whether or not her name would go on this list. I was focused on making sure she was doing her job. That's what I was focused on.
Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took up the cudgel when he pointed out the AG had contradicted himself when he testified in February that he had not approved of the plan to fire the eight prosecutors as proposed by his chief of staff Sampson, then added that Gonzales' testimony "strained credulity."
[While Gonzales has acknowledged that he is responsible for the overall running of the Justice Department, in the past he has stated that he was not responsible for the running of the FBI, which has come under criticism for it's over-amped used of so-called National Security Letters. To remind our Gentle Readers, the FBI is a branch of the Justice Department. As Attorney General, Gonzales is indeed responsible for the performance of the FBI.]
Not to be outdone in the caustic question department, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), asked, "Since you apparently knew very little about the performance about the replaced United States attorneys, how can you testify that the judgment ought to stand?"
And Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), asked Gonzales whether he had reviewed the evaluation records of the dismissed prosecutors, who Justice Department officials initially said had been fired for inadequate performance. He said he had not.
Gonzales conceded that "reasonable people might disagree" with the decision. He said the process by which the U.S. attorneys were dismissed was "nowhere near as rigorous or structured as it should have been."
"To be sure, I should have been more precise when discussing this matter," Gonzales told the committee. "I understand why some of my statements generated confusion, and I have subsequently tried to clarify my words. My misstatements were my mistakes."
The hearings continue. Stay tuned.
Compiled from reports by AP, Chicago Tribune, and Reuters