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Gonzales explanation of firings called 'sorry excuse'

Story Highlights

• Aide suggested using Patriot Act to avoid appointment process
• Attorney general says firings were justified but "mistakes were made"
• E-mail lists attorneys "in the process of being pushed out"
• Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff resigns amid furor over firing of 8 U.S. attorneys
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Tuesday "mistakes were made" regarding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys and he accepts responsibility for the ordeal.

Gonzales said the lawyers should have been told why they were being fired and admitted the explanations initially given to Congress about the matter were "incomplete."

"As we can all imagine, in an organization of 110,000 people, I am not aware of every bit of information that passes through the halls of justice, nor am I aware of all decisions," he said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.

"That is a sorry excuse," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said minutes later on the Senate floor.

Schumer said Gonzales should resign.

"Did the attorney general not know that eight U.S. attorneys were to be fired?" Schumer said. "If he didn't know, he shouldn't be attorney general, plain and simple. ... The buck stops with the attorney general."

However, Gonzales said he was not stepping down.

"I'm committed to doing my job -- and that is what I intend to do here on behalf of the American people."

The Bush administration has said the firings -- seven in December and one months earlier -- were routine personnel matters that were the result of poor performance.

However, Democrats accuse the administration of trying to dictate to the prosecutors, who are supposed to be nonpartisan. Several of the prosecutors who were fired have said they were being pressured to move more quickly on investigations into voter fraud.

Democrats are examining e-mails they say prove the White House was far more involved in the firings than it has acknowledged. (Full story)

The key e-mails are from the Gonzales' chief of staff, who resigned amid growing criticism Monday, the Justice Department said Tuesday.

An e-mail from D. Kyle Sampson to former White House counsel Harriet Miers dated January 1, 2006, read, "You have asked whether President Bush should remove and replace U.S. Attorneys whose four-year terms have expired. I recommend that the Department of Justice and the Office of the Counsel to the President work together to seek the replacement of a limited number of U.S. Attorneys."

On September 13, 2006, Sampson e-mailed Miers lists of federal attorneys "In the Process of Being Pushed Out" and those "We Now Should Consider Pushing Out."

Sampson proposed using a provision of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act to circumvent the standard appointment process.

A provision added in 2006 allows the president to appoint interim federal prosecutors who can serve indefinitely without Senate confirmation.

By skipping the Justice Department's normal personnel system, Sampson told Miers, "we can give far less deference to home-state senators and thereby get (1) our preferred person appointed and (2) do it far faster and more efficiently, at less political cost to the White House."

Schumer said the revelations "proved beyond any reasonable doubt that there has been an unprecedented breach of trust, abuse of power and misuse of the Justice Department. And that is very serious and very important," said Schumer, referring to the e-mails.

Schumer also warned the White House against making Sampson "the next fall guy."

"Today's staff resignation does not take heat off the attorney general. In fact, it raises the temperature. Kyle Sampson will not become the next Scooter Libby," said the senator, referring to Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff who was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury last week in an investigation into the exposure of a CIA agent. (Watch Schumer call for Gonzales to step down Video)

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, said Gonzales "has exhibited a lack of candor with Congress and disdain for the rule of law and our constitutional system," and called his resignation "long overdue."

Schumer and Kennedy are on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has held hearings about the firings.

White House spokesman Tony Snow confirmed it was Miers who came up with an idea to remove all the federal prosecutors and bring in "fresh blood" at the beginning of President Bush's second term. (Watch a congressman explain how e-mails suggest White House involvement in firings Video)

Snow said Miers' proposal was a suggestion, not a recommendation, to fire all the federal prosecutors. Bush made "no recommendations on specific individuals," he said.

Snow said Gonzales, who served as White House counsel in Bush's first term, still has the president's confidence. And Gonzales defended the ultimate decision to remove those prosecutors.

"Again, all political appointees can be removed by the president of the United States for any reason," he said at the end of his news conference. "I stand by the decision, and I think it was the right decision."



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