What Gonzales said; what Gonzales did

New revelations about the attorney general's role in the prosecutor purge don't square with his prior statements.

Published March 24, 2007 6:50AM (EDT)

New documents released late Friday reveal that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his senior aides met to discuss the plan to fire seven U.S. attorneys on Nov. 27, 2006 -- less than two weeks before the prosecutors were told that they would be leaving.

A Justice Department spokeswoman tells the New York Times that the revelation is, in the Times' words, "not inconsistent" with Gonzales' prior statements.

Oh, really?

For the record, here's how Gonzales described his role in the prosecutor purge at a press conference earlier this month:

Gonzales: 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 the Department of Justice, nor am I aware of all decisions. As a general matter, some two years ago, I was made aware that there was a request from the White House as to the possibility of replacing all the United States attorneys. That was immediately rejected by me. I felt that that was a bad idea and it was disruptive.

Reporter: Was that the end of it then?

Gonzales: What I know is that there began a process of evaluating strong performers, not as strong performers and weak performers. And so, as far as I knew, my chief of staff was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers; where were the districts around the country where we could do better for the people in that district. And that's what I knew. But, again, with respect to this whole process, like every CEO, I am ultimately accountable and responsible for what happens within the department. But that is, in essence, what I knew about the process. I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That's basically what I knew as the attorney general. . . .

Reporter: How could your chief of staff be working closely with the president on which U.S. attorneys to be let go and you not know?

Gonzales: Well, again, as -- I accept responsibility for whatever happens here in this department. But I have 110,000 working in the department. Obviously, there are going to be decisions made that I'm not aware of all the time. All the decisions are delegated to people who are confirmed by the Senate, who are -- by statute, have been delegated authority to make decisions.

Mr. Sampson was charged with directing the process to ascertain where were our weak performers, where we could do better in districts around the country. That is a responsibility that he had during the transition. It is a -- he worked with respect to U.S. attorneys and presidential personnel at the White House. That was a role that he had when he was in the counsel's office. That was a role that he had when he was at the Department of Justice under General Ashcroft.

And so, naturally, when questions came up with respect to the evaluation of performances of U.S. attorneys, it would by Kyle Sampson who would drive that effort. . . .

I just described the extent of the knowledge I had about the process. I never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood. What I knew was that there was an ongoing effort that was led by Mr. Sampson vetted through the Department of Justice to ascertain where we could make improvements in U.S. attorney performances around the country.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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