Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales encountered anger and skepticism from senators on Thursday as he insisted that he had nothing to hide in the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys, an episode that has cast a shadow on the Justice Department and brought calls for his resignation.
"I am here today to do my part to ensure that all facts about this matter are brought to light," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, noting that the panel's inquiry into the dismissals had already yielded thousands of pages of internal departmental communications and hours of interviews with department officials.
"These are not the actions of someone with something to hide," Gonzales said in his opening remarks.
But his reception from Democrats and Republicans alike signaled the extent of Gonzales' problems. He is trying to hold on to his job amid accusations that he has been less than forthcoming, at best, about his role in the firing of the federal prosecutors, and senators from both parties pressed him on the matter on Thursday.
"Today, the Department of Justice is experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled during its 137-year history," said the panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy. "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."
Leahy, D-Vt., made it clear at the outset that he was not persuaded by the repeated assertions from President Bush and his allies that the dismissals of the U.S. attorneys, who are political appointees and serve at the pleasure of the president, were above board.
"Indeed," Leahy said, "the apparent reason for these terminations had a lot more to do with politics than performance."
Democrats have questioned whether at least some of the eight prosecutors were fired because they were being too aggressive in investigating possible crimes linked to Republicans, or not aggressive enough in going after Democrats, or both.
"I did not do that," the grim-faced attorney general told the senators. "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."
But Leahy pressed Gonzales on conversations he had with Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, about removing David C. Iglesias, the U.S attorney in New Mexico. "So, when was David Iglesias added to the list of U.S. attorneys to be replaced?" Leahy asked.
When Gonzales said he did not remember, although he thought Iglesias was slated for removal between Oct. 17 and Dec. 15, Leahy responded: "He was added either before or after the elections, but you don't know when. Is that what you're saying?"
Gonzales insisted that he did not recall the timing. So Leahy asked why Iglesias was let go, since Gonzales himself had earlier expressed confidence in him: "When and why did he lose your confidence?"