Gonzales Admits "Confusion" In Firings

U.S. attorney General Alberto Gonzales leaves the annual conference of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association Friday, March 30, 2007, in Boston. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds) AP Photo

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, amid a growing clamor for his resignation, acknowledged Friday there is confusion about his role in the firing of U.S. attorneys and said he doesn't "recall being involved in deliberations" over which would be ousted.

"I believe in truth and accountability, and every step that I've taken is consistent with that principle," Gonzales said when asked why he is not heeding calls to resign. "I am fighting for the truth as well."

Gonzales said he had his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, coordinated performance evaluations for the 93 U.S. attorneys "to see where changes might be appropriate."

"I signed off on the recommendations and signed off on the implementation plan, and that's the extent of my involvement," he told reporters after a round-table discussion in the U.S. attorney's office in Boston with state and federal law enforcement officials about a Justice Department initiative to thwart online predators.

Sampson, testifying Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, contradicted Gonzales' earlier accounts of not being involved in the decision-making. Calling them inaccurate, Sampson said he and the attorney general had talked several times about the firings and the process for carrying them out.

The administration maintains that the firings were appropriate because the prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the president.

The White House predicted Friday that Gonzales will survive the crisis.

"I can tell you that the president has confidence in him," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. President Bush "believes the attorney general can overcome the challenges that are before him," she said.

The president may still have confidence in Gonzales, but the exit door is always unlocked, CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante reported.

Publicly, the White House has said continually that Gonzales retains Mr. Bush's confidence, even while it has also said that Gonzales and his department must address Congress' concerns and questions.

For his part, Mr. Bush was not rushing to defend his old friend from Texas.

Asked about Gonzales during a closed-door meeting with House Republicans on Thursday, Mr. Bush did not defend his longtime friend, according to one official who attended the session and demanded anonymity because it was private.

Instead, Bush tepidly repeated his public statement: The attorney general would have to go up to Capitol Hill and fix his problem, according to this official.

"It's hard to imagine that he (Gonzales) survives because there's so few Republicans that really want him to survive right now," Jim VandeHei, executive editor of Politico.com, told CBS' The Early Show.

In his meeting Friday with reporters, Gonzales said his "primary focus was ensuring that the White House was kept advised on what we were doing and that Kyle was consulting with the appropriate senior officials, people who knew about the performances of the United States attorneys."

"From time to time, Kyle would tell me things that would tell me that this effort was ongoing. I don't recall being involved in deliberations involving the question of whether or not a U.S. attorney should or should not be asked to resign. I didn't focus on specific concerns about individuals," he said.

In Washington, House and Senate investigators spent hours behind closed doors Friday interviewing Michael Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, about the firings and the different accounts of them.

Sampson's testimony did not go well for Gonzales or the White House. Sampson testified that prosecutors put on the list to be fired got there in part because they were not deemed "loyal Bushies." In the aftermath, Gonzales provided an inaccurate account of his own involvement, Sampson said.

"There obviously remains some confusion about my involvement in this," Gonzales said Friday. "At the end of the day, I know what I did. And I know that the motivations for the decisions I made were not based on improper reasons."

Sampson told the panel that the White House had a large role in the firings, not limited involvement as the Justice Department originally claimed.

One-time presidential counsel Harriet Miers joined Gonzales in approving them. And under questioning from Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Sampson said that looking back, he should not have advocated the firing of one prosecutor in particular, New Mexico's David Iglesias.

Congress began its spring break Friday, but there were intense activities taking place behind the scenes.

Elston did not comment as about a dozen news cameras recorded his entrance to the Judiciary Committee suite, where aides to Schumer waited with House aides to question him. No lawmakers were expected to attend the session, spokeswoman Melanie Roussell said.

The congressional lawyers were expected to ask Elston about McNulty's account. McNulty in early February testified before Congress that seven of the U.S. attorneys were fired for performance reasons, and that one, Bud Cummins in Little Rock, Ark., was being moved out so he could be replaced by a former aide to White House political adviser Karl Rove.

Gonzales was upset with McNulty's testimony and would have preferred that he had said all eight were fired for performance reasons, according to Justice Department e-mails forwarded to the two committees. Bush has criticized the department for not giving Congress an accurate account of the firings.
  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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