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Specter: Gonzales to face 'serious questions' on firings

Story Highlights

• Alberto Gonzales writes editorial claiming no attorneys were dismissed improperly
• Sen. Arlen Specter says Gonzales must climb "steep hill" in Tuesday testimony
• Sen. Chuck Schumer says hearing will be "make or break" for attorney general
• Gonzales: Earlier statement about involvement "imprecise," not meant to mislead
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican warned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to avoid generalizations and "deal with the facts," two days before Gonzales is expected to answer questions about the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.

Sen. Arlen Specter's admonition came Sunday after The Washington Post published an op-ed piece in which the embattled attorney general wrote that he never asked that any prosecutor be fired "for an improper reason."

"Furthermore, I have no basis to believe that anyone involved in this process sought the removal of a U.S. attorney for an improper reason," Gonzales wrote.

Also Sunday, the Justice Department released a copy of remarks Gonzales will make during his Tuesday testimony before the Judiciary Committee. (What Gonzales will say, PDF)

Gonzales is scheduled to tell the committee that he has nothing to hide and that he "never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people about my role in this matter."

Asked if he accepted Gonzales' assertions, Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, told ABC's "This Week," "I do not. Those statements are very conclusory. When he has a full column of The Washington Post, I think he would have been better advised if he would have dealt with some facts."

Specter further said during the ABC interview that Gonzales has a "steep hill to climb" and will face "serious questions" about his role in the firings.

"I think the attorney general is going to have to explain how he said he was not involved in discussions when the e-mails [released by the Justice Department] show that he was at the meeting when all of these matters were discussed," Specter said. "And he's going to have to show that there were reasons for what was said."

A top Democrat and committee member joined Specter on Sunday in warning Gonzales to answer questions fully.

"Let me be clear: This is a very, very important hearing," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. "It's make or break for the attorney general. Alberto Gonzales is the central figure in this investigation."

Schumer said he sent Gonzales a list of questions last week for him to answer Tuesday and the attorney general did not answer one of them in his prepared opening statement.

Accusing Gonzales of "contradictions" in statements he has given about the firings, Schumer complained that "we still don't have all of the documents we requested from the Justice Department."

"And the White House continues to stonewall us when it comes to providing key documents and offering White House officials for interviews," he said.

Gonzales says he 'misspoke' in March

Gonzales said he "misspoke" at a March 13 press conference when he said he was not "involved in any discussions about what was going on" -- a statement later contradicted by his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who resigned amid the uproar.

"At that same press conference, I made clear that I was aware of the process," Gonzales' testimony will state, noting that Sampson was involved in the process for determining "weak performers."

Gonzales conceded his March 13 statement was "imprecise and overbroad, but it certainly was not in any way an attempt to mislead the American people."

In his Washington Post piece, Gonzales said that Sampson gave him updates on the process, but "to my knowledge, I did not make decisions about who should or should not be asked to resign."

Sampson was the author of a 2005 e-mail that read, "As an operational matter, we would like to replace 15-20 percent of the current U.S. attorneys -- the underperforming ones." He added that the remaining U.S. attorneys "are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc."

The Justice Department has sent Congress more than 3,200 pages of documents that touch on why the eight U.S. attorneys were fired last year. But scores of pages contain deleted sections or are entirely blank.

Congressional investigators have questioned whether White House aides used e-mail accounts from the Republican Party and President Bush's re-election campaign for official government business to avoid scrutiny of those dealings.

Those e-mails have not been provided to Congress because, the White House said, it "screwed up" by not requiring e-mails from those accounts to be saved. Spokeswoman Dana Perino said last week the White House was working to recover the documents.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy scoffed at the White House claim, saying he didn't believe the e-mails were lost and that his committee would issue subpoenas for the e-mails if necessary. (Watch Leahy compare the missing e-mails to 18-minute missing gap in the Watergate tapes Video)

Committee probing reason behind firings

A president has the right to dismiss U.S. attorneys; the Senate committee is investigating whether some were fired for political reasons, perhaps after being pressured to step up investigations into Democratic lawmakers.

The Justice Department denies any wrongdoing, and the Bush administration has denied firing prosecutors based on political loyalty.

"While reasonable people may dispute whether or not the actual reasons for these decisions were sufficient to justify a particular resignation, again, there is no factual basis to support the allegation, as many have made, that these resignations were motivated by improper reasons," Gonzales will say in his prepared testimony.

"While I firmly believe that these dismissals were appropriate, I have equal conviction that the process by which these U.S. attorneys were asked to resign could have -- and should have -- been handled differently."

Gonzales will be grilled Tuesday on whether he is "capable of administering the Department of Justice" and whether he had enough "hands-on" involvement to know what was happening, Specter told ABC.

"And can he explain why these individuals were asked to resign and justify the reasons for doing so?" Specter asked.

Many Democrats have called for Gonzales' ouster. Some Republican lawmakers also have encouraged him to consider resigning, including Sens. John Sununu of New Hampshire and Gordon Smith of Oregon and Reps. Dana Rohrabacher of California and Tom Tancredo of Colorado.

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is mulling a 2008 presidential bid, last weekend called the situation "the most mishandled, artificial, self-created mess that I can remember in the years I've been active in public life." (Full story)

He blamed Gonzales and his staff and said the nation would be "better served" by a new team at the Justice Department.

President Bush has said he remains confident in Gonzales.

In his Post editorial, Gonzales apologized to the dismissed attorneys, "their families and the thousands of dedicated professionals at the Justice Department for my role in allowing this matter to spin into an undignified Washington spectacle."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says that the U.S. attorneys were properly dismissed and that he never meant to deceive the American people.



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