Gonzales Minimizes 'I Don't Recalls' But Still Can't Answer

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales finally appeared to take heed from the repeated skewerings he has received in recent months over his seeming inability to recall key moments and meetings relating to the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

In his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee today, Gonzales tried tamping down on "I don't recalls" as best he could but still failed to shed any new light on who picked the prosecutors for the chopping block and why.

In his opening bid, the committee chairman, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, optimistically suggested that if Gonzales could answer those basic questions, the committee could make "incredible gains in trying to put this matter to rest." Conyers noted that Gonzales ought to be able to answer those basic questions in "about three sentences."

"But take more," he told the attorney general. "But tell me something." No such luck.

Gonzales stuck to his by now familiar refrain. Yes, he had thought his former chief of staff Kyle Sampson had matters well in hand and was consulting with the right people; no, he, Gonzales, would never try to make partisan political decisions and fire prosecutors in order to shut down politically sensitive investigations.

Yes, he had perhaps been "inartful" in his earlier descriptions of the "unfortunate episode" but supports the principles of truthfulness and accountability; no, he couldn't answer all the questions because he respects the integrity of a Justice Department internal investigation into the firings.

One could argue that Gonzales's candor and forthrightness were matched by the depth and sophistication of the questioning.

"Aware of that, are you?" Conyers asked, Yoda-like, as to whether Gonzales was aware that a senator was deeply involved in efforts to oust one of the prosecutors. California Republican Dan Lungren and his Utah compatriot, Chris Cannon--who has carried the administration's water in defense of Gonzales--led the hearing on a detour by repeatedly objecting to Democrat Linda Sanchez's placing a New York Times article citing Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis of California as being under a federal corruption probe.

Once again, in the midst of the prosecutor firing scandal, another significant problem Gonzales is confronting--the FBI's widespread misuse of a sensitive national security tool called national security letters--got short shrift in what's been billed as an oversight hearing.

By Chitra Ragavan