WASHINGTON—Attorney General Alberto Gonzales came under more pressure Thursday to explain his role in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, after his former top aide said the attorney general was far more involved in the ousters than he has acknowledged.
In seven, often tense, hours of testimony, former chief of staff Kyle Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Gonzales was aware of the plan from the outset, was briefed at least five times over the past two years and attended a meeting where Justice Department officials discussed removing the prosecutors.
Gonzales and the White House made the final decision to proceed with the plan, Sampson said. "I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate," Sampson said.
Sampson's sworn testimony appeared to further erode Gonzales' credibility as he tries to hold onto his job. It also raised new questions about the White House's involvement in the firings, as Sampson repeatedly said he couldn't remember details about his interaction with White House officials, particularly with political strategist Karl Rove.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sampson's recollection of the attorney general's involvement in the firings had "more or less shattered" Gonzales' credibility.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the top Republican on the panel, said Sampson's testimony did more to cloud Gonzales' future than clear up the controversy. "I think there are more questions," Specter said, adding that there was now "a real question as to whether he's acting in a competent way as attorney general."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said President Bush still supported Gonzales, but she added, "I'm going to have to let the attorney general speak for himself." She noted that "the attorney general has some work to do on Capitol Hill."
After the hearing, the Justice Department pointed out that Gonzales had acknowledged in a television interview this week that his initial statements needed clarification.
Earlier this month, Gonzales had sought to distance himself from the firings and denied being involved in discussions leading to the attorneys' ousters. After internal Justice Department documents released to Congress in recent days contradicted that explanation, he admitted that he had discussed the firings with other Justice officials.
At several points during the hearing, Democrats and some Republicans were openly skeptical of Sampson's testimony because it didn't always appear to jibe with statements he made in his e-mails and other documents to Justice Department officials and Congress.
Sampson, however, offered several new details about the firings:
_He testified that none of the firings to his knowledge were ordered to block or punish U.S. attorneys for their corruption investigations of Republicans or their failure to indict Democrats. Under questioning, Sampson said he was the "aggregator" of recommendations from the Bush administration, but senators couldn't pin him down on who wanted to fire whom and why.
_Sampson denied that former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam in San Diego might have been fired for investigating a top CIA official or a Republican lawmaker. Instead, he said that the curious timing of an e-mail in which he described Lam as a "real problem" was pegged to Republican criticism that she wasn't aggressive enough in prosecuting illegal immigration.
_When initially ranking U.S. attorneys in 2005 to consider who might be fired, he deliberately put U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in a neutral category rather than in a high-ranking category even though Fitzgerald is widely considered one of the nation's top prosecutors. Fitzgerald at the time had been tapped to investigate whether Vice President Dick Cheney's then-chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby had violated any federal laws in a CIA leak case. "I knew he was handling a very sensitive case, an investigation that included the White House. . . and so I just didn't touch it," Sampson said.
In 2006, however, after Libby was indicted, Sampson said he proposed to then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers and her deputy, William Kelley, that the Bush administration fire Fitzgerald. The suggestion went nowhere, he said. "I remember at the time that Ms. Miers and Bill Kelley said nothing; they just looked at me," he said. "And I immediately regretted it and I withdrew it at the time."
_When asked whether he'd spoken with Rove about removing Fitzgerald, Sampson said he couldn't recall. Rove also was investigated for his role in the CIA leak case, but was eventually cleared.
Sampson also couldn't explain to senators why he wrote in an e-mail last December that it was important to Rove to get a former aide, Tim Griffin, named as U.S. attorney in Arkansas, but two months later drafted a letter to senators saying he had no knowledge of Rove being involved. Sampson told the senators that Rove's deputies had an interest in Griffin, so he assumed that came at Rove's directive, but that he didn't know for sure.
_Sampson acknowledged that a significant contributing factor in some of the firings was complaints from Republican Party activists. In the case of former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, Sampson said Sen. Pete Domenici's ongoing complaints might have been behind the eleventh-hour decision to add Iglesias to the list of those fired last December. Asked whether Sampson would have targeted Iglesias if he had it to do over again, he said, "In hindsight, sitting here today, I would not."
Sampson said that Justice Department officials badly mishandled the firings and had unnecessarily fueled suspicions that the ousters were political payback against independent prosecutors.
"If that is the impression that people have, then I regret it because that does bring harm," he said." I failed in that, and that's why I resigned."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Ron Hutcheson contributed to this report.)