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Alberto Gonzales in a nutshell: "I think I may be aware of that."

During the first line of questioning today, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) tried to get Alberto Gonzales to answer the simply of question of who put the U.S. attorneys on the firing list and why they were put there. Gonzales replied as he has in the past, by saying that he'd initiated a "process" and that he trusted the process. Conyers summarized this response, "So you don't know?"



Conyers also cited the testimony of a Justice Department official Matthew Friedrich, who told congressional investigators that he'd met with two New Mexico Republicans who had complaints about U.S. Attorney for New Mexico David Iglesias' handling of voter fraud cases (i.e. Iglesias' failure to indict Democrats). The two Republicans told Friedrich that they'd brought their complaints to Karl Rove and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM). Iglesias, of course, was subsequently fired.

When Conyers asked if Gonzales was aware of that conversation, he replied, "I am certainly aware of it now."

The hearing before the House Judiciary Committee is beginning now. It's airing on C-Span 3 and streaming from the House Judiciary website. We'll provide you running updates throughout the day.

Here's a little preview of what you'll be hearing from the Republican side. From Roll Call (sub. req.):

In what may be the most spirited public defense of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to date, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee today will demand an end to what one called an “endless piscine expedition” in the U.S. attorneys scandal....

“If there are no fish in this lake, we should reel in our lines of question, dock our empty boat and turn to more pressing issues,” [Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the ranking member on Judiciary said].

Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), the ranking member of the Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, which is in charge of the probe, also sounded fed up.

“I hope he’s clear, direct and unapologetic,” Cannon said of Gonzales’ testimony.

“I’m really tired of innuendo and repeated use of the word corruption,” Cannon added. “If [Democrats] can’t produce tomorrow, the story ought to disappear.”

Pentagon Restricting Testimony in Congress "The Pentagon has placed unprecedented restrictions on who can testify before Congress, reserving the right to bar lower-ranking officers, enlisted soldiers, and career bureaucrats from appearing before oversight committees or having their remarks transcribed, according to Defense Department documents. Robert L. Wilkie , a former Bush administration national security official who left the White House to become assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs last year, has outlined a half-dozen guidelines that prohibit most officers below the rank of colonel from appearing in hearings, restricting testimony to high-ranking officers and civilians appointed by President Bush." (Boston Globe)

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You can look at it two different ways:

1) Alberto Gonzales has been revealed to be at best an incompetent amnesiac and at worst an apparatchik determined to cover up the White House's total control of the Justice Department. He's lost even the confidence of administration loyalists on Capitol Hill and is nothing but a ghost with the title attorney general.

2) Alberto Gonzales has run the gauntlet. And he won! He doesn't have any credibility left to lose.

You can guess what the Gonzales way of seeing the world is. "[Gonzales] has told aides he believes he has weathered the storm," reports The New York Times.

Of course, the Justice Department is in a shambles, but President Bush just won't waver. The expressions of support keep coming, getting even fuller, wholler. The latest from Tony Snow: the president “still supports the attorney general fully and wholly.”

Meanwhile, the Times reports, a division has occurred in the Justice Department "between Gonzales loyalists and backers of Paul J. McNulty, the deputy attorney general." The AG's backers fault McNulty for blowing their cover; McNulty's backers "have faulted Mr. Sampson for misleading Mr. McNulty and other officials about the origin of the dismissals and the extent of White House involvement." McNulty is reportedly considering whether to step down "soon," says the Times. But Gonzales is staying put.

Perhaps the most amusing bit in the piece is the assertion that Karl Rove is pushing for Gonzales' removal:

A Republican strategist familiar with Mr. Rove’s thinking said that Mr. Rove, the president’s chief political adviser, “believes it’s in the best interest of the president for Gonzales on his own to resign.” But, this person said, Mr. Rove and other like-minded aides have concluded that “there’s nothing they can do — it’s about the relationship between Gonzales and the president.”


Right.

Maybe this might explain Rove's feeling of helplessness:

Yet there are reasons White House aides are content to see Mr. Gonzales stay put. First, they say they believe that if Mr. Gonzales were to step down under pressure, it would empower Congressional Democrats to set their sights on others, including Mr. Rove, who has acknowledged complaining to Mr. Gonzales and the president about several prosecutors.

And removing Mr. Gonzales would pose another set of complications: finding a candidate who could be confirmed by the Senate and risking replacement of a loyalist with someone who might be more independent.

Eleven months before seven US Attorneys were fired on December 7th, 2006, former Kansas City US Attorney Todd Graves received a call from an official at the Executive Office for the U.S. Attorney telling him he was fired. Graves announced his resignation less than two months later on March 10.

Justice Department officials would later tell Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) that Graves had been dismissed for "performance" issues, according to Wednesday article in the Kansas City Star. But that's not what Graves was told at the time. According to a source with detailed knowledge of the conversation, Graves was told that his removal was not based on his performance as a prosecutor, but that it was simply time to let someone else have a chance at the job.

That someone, of course, turned out to be Bradley Schlozman, Graves' successor as US Attorney and the first US Attorney to be appointed using the special powers granted the Attorney General in the revised version of the USA Patriot Act signed into law in March 2006.

Contacted today by TPMMuckraker.com, a Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Graves' dismissal, but Graves' case resembles those of at least two other fired prosecutors whose dismissals have been tied to complaints from Republican party officials that they did not press vote fraud indictments against Democrats.

According to the same knowledgeable source, over the last four years, Graves, a Republican himself, had two flaps with the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

The first, dating back to 2002, was not voting-rights related, but involved a cross-burning case where Graves helped negotiate a civil mediation. Graves hung up on the head of the Civil Rights Division at the time over a disagreement about the terms of the settlement.

In 2005, Graves again clashed with the Civil Rights Division when he declined to sign a letter outlining a voter-registration lawsuit against the State of Missouri pushed by Bradley Schlozman, then an assistant attorney general in charge of the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division.

The suit alleged that Missouri was not being sufficiently aggressive in purging its vote rolls of out of date or ineligible registrations. Graves allegedly dragged his feet during the lead-up to the lawsuit’s filing and was openly dubious about whether the case would ultimately prove successful.

After the firing, at Graves' request, Missouri's senior Senator Kit Bond placed a call to the White House to briefly extend Graves’ time in office, a Bond spokeswoman said in a statement yesterday. But Bond’s request was denied.

Purged U.S. attorneys John McKay of Seattle and David Iglesias of New Mexico sat down with The Seattle Times today and had a lot to say.

First, they were clear that they think the various investigations -- by Congress and the Justice Department's internal watchdogs -- will result in criminal charges, whether for trying to influence criminal investigations or for lying to Congress:

"I think there will be a criminal case that will come out of this," McKay said during his meeting with Times journalists. "This is going to get worse, not better."...

McKay said he believes obstruction-of-justice charges will be filed if investigators conclude that the dismissal of any of the eight prosecutors was motivated by an attempt to influence ongoing public-corruption or voter-fraud investigations....

Additionally, McKay and Iglesias said they believe Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty lied under oath when they testified before Congress that the eight prosecutors were fired for performance-related reasons and because of policy disputes with Justice Department headquarters.


But McKay also told an anecdote that shows what has recently become painfully apparent -- that Alberto Gonzales never stopped being White House counsel when he became attorney general. He never stopped thinking of himself as the president's lawyer. From the Times:

McKay said he began to have concerns about politics entering the Justice Department in early 2005, when Gonzales addressed all of the country's U.S. attorneys in Scottsdale, Ariz., shortly after he took over as attorney general.

"His first speech to us was a 'you work for the White House' speech," McKay recalled. " 'I work for the White House, you work for the White House.' "

McKay said he thought at the time, "He couldn't have meant that speech," given the traditional independence of U.S. Attorneys. "It turns out he did."

He looked around the meeting room and caught the eyes of his colleagues, who gave him looks of surprise at Gonzales' remarks. "We were stunned at what he was saying."

Well, here it is, so you can read it yourself, the secret order signed by Alberto Gonzales in March of last year that gave Kyle Sampson and Monica Goodling, two young aides with close ties to the White House, the power to hire and fire junior political appointees at the Justice Department (click to enlarge):



You can expect to hear a number of questions about the order tomorrow.

Update: Marty Lederman has a helpful dissection of the order's meaning and motivation over at Balkinization.

Another red flag in the ongoing U.S. Attorney scandal is waiving over at The Kansas City Star.

It looks like former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves was fired and quickly replaced by frequent TPMmuckraker subject Bradley Schlozman. Schlozman is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee this coming Tuesday.

Graves himself hasn’t said definitively whether he got the ax, but, in a statement released last night, he did say it was better to leave his post and “take a graceful exit than to do something that you should be ashamed of.” It's not immediately clear what shameful act he's referring to.

Read on below for his full statement.

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The House Judiciary Committee has released Alberto Gonzales' written statement in preparation for tomorrow's hearing. The story won't surprise anyone, but it's clear at least that Gonzales has honed it down to a streamlined tale of his chief of staff Kyle Sampson's failure to fulfill Gonzales' expectations.

Sampson and Gonzales had agreed, Gonzales writes, on how the U.S. attorneys to be fired should be selected. Sampson was to make the rounds among senior Justice Department officials " to collect insight and opinions" on U.S. attorneys. And he was to "provide, based on that collective judgment, a consensus recommendation of the Department’s senior leadership on districts that could benefit from a change."

Nevermind that none of those DoJ officials take responsibility for having pushed for the firing of the six U.S. attorneys at the heart of the scandal. That's Gonzales' story and he's sticking to it. Gonzales will only admit that " it is clear to me that I should have done more personally to ensure that the review process was more rigorous."

An excerpt of his testimony is below the fold.

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