WASHINGTON — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said that he doesn't remember talking to an aide in early 2005 about plans for a mass firing of U.S. attorneys, but it's not just his memory that's in question now.
A new batch of Bush administration e-mails released on Thursday added to doubts in Congress about Gonzales' truthfulness and management abilities. In a Jan. 9, 2005, e-mail, a Gonzales aide reported on his conversation "a couple weeks" earlier with Gonzales about plans for a mass dismissal of federal prosecutors.
As attorney general and in his previous job as White House counsel, Gonzales has been at the center of virtually every controversy involving the administration's view of civil liberties in the war on terror, the use of torture on suspected terrorists and spying on Americans without warrants. That's left him vulnerable to attacks from both ends of the political spectrum.
Struggling to save his job, Gonzales plans to talk privately with lawmakers on Friday to address some of their concerns. Here are some of the issues he'll have to explain:
_"I would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney for political reasons," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 18. Critics say his statement is patently absurd because administration officials later said that former U.S attorney H.E. "Bud" Cummins was forced out of his job in Arkansas to make room for Tim Griffin, a former Bush campaign worker and a protege of Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser.
Gonzales' critics suspect that other U.S. attorneys were fired because they either failed to target Democrats or they indicted prominent Republicans. Republican Party officials across the country funneled their complaints about U.S. attorneys through Rove or his deputies.
"This is based on performance," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday, echoing previous statements from President Bush and Gonzales.
_Gonzales said Tuesday that he knew almost nothing about plans for a mass firing, which the Justice Department and White House developed over two years. He said his involvement consisted of rejecting an early plan to fire all 93 U.S. attorneys.
Gonzales said he'd known that Kyle Sampson, his chief of staff, "was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers." But Gonzales said he "was not involved in any discussions about what was going on" and didn't see any of the numerous memos about the dismissal plan.
"Either Attorney General Gonzales knew what his chief of staff was doing—that's a pretty severe indictment—or he didn't, which means he doesn't have the foggiest idea of what's going on in the Justice Department," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Sampson resigned on Monday.
_"I believe fundamentally in the constitutional role of the Senate in advise and consent with respect to U.S. attorneys and would in no way support an effort to circumvent that constitutional role," Gonzales said Tuesday, reiterating his Jan. 18 testimony.
If that's true, Gonzales failed to convey that message to Sampson.
At least as early as September 2006, Sampson was working on a plan to bypass the Senate to install Rove's protege in Arkansas. The strategy relied on a provision that Congress added to the USA Patriot Act in March 2006 at the Justice Department's request.
"We now know that it is very likely that the amendment to the Patriot Act, which was made in March 2006, might well have been done to facilitate a wholesale replacement of all or part of U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Tuesday.
William Moschella, a mid-level Justice Department official, told McClatchy Newspapers on Wednesday that he sought the Patriot Act amendment without informing his bosses or anyone at the White House.
_Gonzales acknowledges that Justice Department officials were wrong when they told lawmakers that the White House wasn't involved in the firings. In fact, they were heavily involved from the start.
"We're a go for the US Atty plan," presidential aide William Kelley notified the Justice Department in early December after receiving approval from the White House legislative affairs office, Rove's office and the communications office.
On Tuesday, Gonzales expressed regrets that Congress got "incomplete" information from his agency.