Docs: Gonzales OK'd Firings 4 Months Ago

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Tuesday, March 13, 2007. AP

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales approved plans to fire several U.S. attorneys in a November meeting, according to documents released Friday that contradict earlier claims that he was not closely involved in the dismissals.

The Nov. 27 meeting, in which the attorney general and at least five top Justice Department officials participated, focused on a five-step plan for carrying out the firings of the prosecutors, Justice Department officials said late Friday.

There, Gonzales signed off on the plan, which was crafted by his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson. Sampson resigned last week amid a political firestorm surrounding the firings.

The documents indicated that the hour-long morning discussion, held in the attorney general's conference room, was the only time Gonzales met with top aides who decided which prosecutors to fire and how to do it.

Justice spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said it was not immediately clear whether Gonzales gave his final approval to begin the firings at that meeting. Scolinos also said Gonzales was not involved in the process of selecting which prosecutors would be asked to resign.

On March 13, in explaining the firings, Gonzales told reporters he was aware that some of the dismissals were being discussed but was not involved in them.

"I knew my chief of staff was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers — where were the districts around the country where we could do better for the people in that district, and that's what I knew," Gonzales said last week. "But that is in essence what I knew about the process; was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That's basically what I knew as the attorney general."

Later, he added: "I accept responsibility for everything that happens here within this department. But when you have 110,000 people working in the department, obviously there are going to be decisions that I'm not aware of in real time. Many decisions are delegated."

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is leading the inquiry into the firings, said: "If the facts bear out that Attorney General Gonzales knew much more about the plan than he has previously admitted, then he can no longer serve as attorney general."

The documents were released Friday night, a few hours after Sampson agreed to testify at a Senate inquiry next week into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

Earlier Friday, a staunch White House ally, Sen. John Cornyn, summoned White House counsel Fred Fielding to Capitol Hill and told him he wanted "no surprises."

"I told him, 'Everything you can release, please release. We need to know what the facts are,"' Cornyn said.

Sampson will appear Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, his attorney said. His appearance will mark the first congressional testimony by a Justice Department aide since the release of thousands of documents that show the firings were orchestrated, in part, by the White House.

Sampson "looks forward to answering the committee's questions," wrote his attorney, Brad Berenson, in a two-paragraph letter to Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and the panel's top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

"We trust that his decision to do so will satisfy the need of the Congress to obtain information from him concerning the requested resignations of the United States attorneys," Berenson wrote.

E-mails between the White House and the Justice Department, dating back to the weeks immediately after the 2004 presidential election, show Sampson was heavily engaged in deciding how many prosecutors would be replaced, and which ones. The Bush administration maintains the dismissals of the eight political appointees were proper.

Democrats, however, question whether the eight were selected because they were not seen as, in Sampson's words, "loyal Bushies."

"He was right at the center of things," Schumer said earlier of Sampson. "He has said publicly that what others have said is not how it happened. ... He contradicts DOJ."

Schumer said he hoped Sampson would provide more detail about who initiated the firings and whether they were politically motivated.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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