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US Senators Question Attorney General Gonzales on Controversial Attorney Firings


U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Tuesday faced sharp questioning from lawmakers of both political parties over his handling of the firing of federal prosecutors, as a constitutional showdown looms between Congress and the Bush administration over the issue. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee took aim at Attorney General Gonzales' handling of last year's firing of nine federal prosecutors, and questioned his ability to lead the Department of Justice.

"The attorney general has lost the confidence of the Congress and the American people," said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the panel.

The top Republican on the committee, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said controversy over the prosecutors' dismissals has left "a heavy cloud" over the Justice Department.

"There is evidence of low morale, very low morale, lack of credibility, candidly, your personal credibility," he said. "The department is dysfunctional."

Congress is investigating the Justice Department's firing last year of nine federal prosecutors. Democrats believe partisan politics were behind the dismissals, but the White House argues they were performance-related.

Gonzales again defended his decision to approve the dismissals.

"I did not accept the recommendations with the understanding that this was to punish or interfere with an investigation for purely partisan reasons," he said.

Senator Specter urged the administration to consider appointing a special prosecutor to investigate.

The Bush administration has denied lawmakers access to documents and witnesses relating to the firings, claiming executive privilege.

The House Judiciary Committee is to vote Wednesday on contempt citations for White House chief of staff Josh Bolton and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, both of whom refused congressional demands for information on the dismissals.

The issue could ultimately be resolved in the court system.

Besides the prosecutor firings, Congress is also investigating the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, which critics argue is illegal.

The program, established after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, allowed the National Security Agency to monitor, without court warrants, phone calls and e-mails between suspected terrorists overseas and people in the United States. The administration earlier this year agreed to have the program subject to review by a special court.

Gonzales testified earlier this year that there had not been any serious disagreement over the program, but the Deputy Attorney General, James Comey, testified in May that a number of top Justice Department officials threatened to quit over the matter.

Gonzales Tuesday sought to explain the discrepancy, saying there had been disagreement, but it was over other intelligence activities, not the wiretap program.

Lawmakers found the explanation hard to believe.

"Sir, how can you say you can stay on as attorney general when you go through exercises like this, where you are bobbing and weaving and ducking to avoid admitting that you deceived the committee," asked Senator Charles Schumer is a New York Democrat.

Schumer and other lawmakers have called for Gonzales' resignation.

But despite such calls, the attorney general Tuesday reiterated that he has no plans to leave office.

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