The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday cleared the way for subpoenas compelling five Justice Department officials and six of the federal prosecutors they fired to tell the story of a purge of U.S. attorneys that has prompted demands for the ouster of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The voice vote to authorize the panel to issue subpoenas amounts to insurance against the possibility that Gonzales could retract his permission to let the aides testify voluntarily, or impose strict conditions.
The committee also postponed for a week a vote on whether to authorize subpoenas for President Bush's top aides who were involved in the eight firings, including political adviser Karl Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and deputy White House Counsel William K. Kelley.
The committee approved subpoena power for key Justice Department officials involved in the firings: Michael Elston, Kyle Sampson, Monica Goodling, Bill Mercer and Mike Battle.
Sampson, Gonzales' chief of staff, quit this week. Elston is staff chief to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and Mercer is associate attorney general. Goodling is Gonzales' senior counsel and White House liaison, and Battle is the departing director of the office that oversees all 93 U.S. attorneys.
Gonzales has said he would allow the aides still at the Justice Department to testify voluntarily. It was unclear whether Sampson would agree to tell his story without a subpoena.
The panel also approved subpoena power for six of the eight U.S. attorneys fired since December. The six, all of whom testified last week under oath before the House Committee, are: Carol Lam of California, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, Paul Charlton of Arizona, John McKay of Washington state, Daniel Bogden of Nevada, David Iglesias of New Mexico.
The subpoenas are a warning to the embattled administration to follow through on promises in recent days by Gonzales and Bush to tell the whole story of the firings, beyond the selected details that Associate Deputy Attorney General William Moschella revealed to the House panel last week.
"I want to obtain their cooperation and all relevant information," Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said. "But I want people to know that if I do not get cooperation, I will subpoena, we will have testimony under oath in this committee. We will find out what happened."
Ranking Republican Arlen Specter said he would do the same thing if he were still chairman, but he cautioned against passing judgment on Gonzales and the aides before the facts are fully known.
"I agree that this committee should get to the bottom of this issue," Specter, R-Pa., said. "I would hope that we would do so with at least a modicum of objectivity."
Republican call for dismissal
On Wednesday Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire became the first Republican in Congress to call for Gonzales' dismissal, hours after President Bush expressed confidence in his embattled Cabinet officer.
"I think the president should replace him," Sununu said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Gonzales has been fending off Democratic calls for his firing in the wake of disclosures surrounding the ousters of eight U.S. attorneys.
Sununu said the firings, together with a report last Friday by the Justice Department's inspector general criticizing the administration's use of secret national security letters to obtain personal records in terrorism probes, shattered his confidence in Gonzales.
"We need to have a strong, credible attorney general that has the confidence of Congress and the American people," said Sununu, who faces a tough re-election campaign next year. "Alberto Gonzales can't fill that role."
"I think the attorney general should be fired," Sununu said.
Gonzales resists calls for resignation
Earlier Wednesday the embattled attorney general said it is up to President Bush whether he remains in the administration and said he wants to stay and explain to Congress the circumstances surrounding the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
“I work for the American people and serve at the pleasure of the president,” Gonzales said. Defending himself amid an escalating political row over the replacement of a host of federal prosecutors, Gonzales said he had done a good job in the country’s top law enforcement position.
“I think you can look at the record of the department in terms of what we’ve done ... going after child predators, public corruption cases,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show. “I think our record is outstanding.”
Gonzales acknowledged, as he had on Tuesday, that mistakes were made in the handling of the U.S. attorney firings and said he wanted to remain in the job to make things right with Congress.
“I think we’ve done a good job in managing the department. ... Things are going to happen,” he said. “We are going to work with Congress to make sure they know what happened. ... We want to ensure that they have a complete and accurate picture of what happened here.”
President defends AG
Bush, speaking in Mexico, said Wednesday he was troubled by the Justice Department’s misleading explanations to Congress about the firings and expected Gonzales to address the problem.
Bush said he stood by Gonzales amid calls for his ouster.
“Mistakes were made. And I’m frankly not happy about them,” , where he is wrapping up a weeklong trip to Latin America.
Criticism from Democrats
The dispute over the prosecutors has become the latest clash between Bush’s Republican Party and the newly empowered Democratic majority in Congress. Democrats, who have long accused Republicans of running roughshod over opponents, have portrayed the firings as part of a campaign of intimidation and obstruction by the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers.
Several Democrats have called for Gonzales’ resignation, among them presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards.
“The buck should stop somewhere,” Clinton said in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” which was broadcast Wednesday morning. She added that Bush “needs to be very forthcoming — what did he say, what did he know, what did he do?” and that high-level White House adviser Karl Rove also “owes the Congress and the country an explanation” for his role in the affair.
The firestorm of criticism has erupted in the wake of the disclosure of e-mails within the administration which showed that Gonzales’ chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, had discussed the possible firings of U.S. attorneys in early 2005 with then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers.
Gonzales accepted Sampson’s resignation this week; Miers had left the administration earlier this year.
‘He’s a standup guy’
It was the second time in as many weeks that Gonzales came under withering criticism on Capitol Hill. Last week, he and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller admitted that the FBI had improperly, and at times illegally, used the USA Patriot Act to secretly pry out personal information about Americans in terrorism investigations.
Gonzales, himself a former White House counsel, has been friends with Bush for years, going back to when he served as Bush’s secretary of state in Texas. Bush retains full confidence in the attorney general, spokesman Dan Bartlett, traveling with Bush in Mexico. said Wednesday during the president’s visit to Mexico. “He’s a standup guy,” Bartlett said of Gonzales.
As for the firings, Bartlett said White House officials had heard complaints from members of Congress regarding prosecutors and Bush had raised the subject during an October 2006 meeting with Gonzales. He described the exchange as “offhand” and said Bush did not name any specific prosecutors but did identify their states.
“This briefly came up and the president said, ‘I’ve been hearing about this election fraud issue from members of Congress and want to be sure you’re on top of it as well,’” Bartlett said.
Bartlett said that Gonzales had responded, “I know, and we’re looking at those issues.”