"That was, in essence, sort of, a talking point"

Were U.S. attorneys fired for "performance-related" reasons? See if you can tell what Gonzales means.

Published April 19, 2007 5:46PM (EDT)

So were the victims of the Justice Department's prosecutor purge fired for "performance-related" reasons, as Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath in February?

It's a reasonable question, but it sure is hard to understand the answer. See if you can tell what Alberto Gonzales is saying on the subject in these excerpts from his own sworn testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee today:

Gonzales: "Those eight attorneys deserved better. They deserved better from me and from the Department of Justice, which they served selflessly for many years. Each is a fine lawyer and dedicated professional. I regret how they were treated, and I apologize to them and to their families for allowing this matter to become an unfortunate and undignified public spectacle."

Gonzales: "There is nothing improper in making a change for poor management, policy differences or questionable judgment, or simply to have another qualified individual serve. I think we agree on that."

Gonzales: "Obviously, when this began, I did not -- I was not the person in the department who had the most information about the performance and qualification of U.S. attorneys."

Gonzales: "Senator, I have in my mind a recollection as to knowing [why] some of these United States attorneys [were asked to resign]. There are two that I do not recall knowing in my mind what I understood to be the reasons for the removal. But as to the others, I recall knowing the reasons why independently I was not surprised to see their names recommended to me because through my performance as attorney general I had become aware of specific [information] related to performance."

Sen. Sam Brownback: [U.S. attorney] Daniel Bogden of Nevada -- why was he terminated?

Gonzales: Senator, this is probably that one that to me, in hindsight, was the closest call. I do not recall what I knew about Mr. Bogden on December 7th. That's not to say that I wasn't given a reason; I just don't recall the reason. I didn't have an independent basis or recollection of knowing about Mr. Bogden's performance.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein: My question is, did anybody that was involved in [asking the U.S. attorneys to resign] ever look at their performance reports prior to putting them on the list?

Gonzales: Senator, I don't know that.

Sen. John Cornyn: You say that the process was flawed and you made mistakes in managing it. And I'd like to ask you, how should you and the department have conducted this process, if at all?

Gonzales: I believe that the review was appropriate, quite frankly. I think it is appropriate to ensure that public servants are doing their job. And that if we can make improvements, I think I have an obligation as the attorney general to pursue those improvements.

Gonzales: Now, I want to be very, very careful about formalizing a review process [for U.S. attorneys] ... I think it's also unfair to the president of the United States, quite frankly. If you have a formal evaluation process and that process shows that a United States attorney is doing a great job, but the president wants to make a change, politically, it may be tougher for the president to do that.

Cornyn: My recollection is that the deputy attorney general, Mr. McNulty, first offered those "performance-based" rationales for replacement of these attorneys, each of whom had served four years. And this is not a lifetime-tenured job. It's not like a federal judge. And it would have been much better to tell each of these United States attorneys, "Thank you for your service. You've served for four years. And now it's time for someone else to have an opportunity to serve their country in this important job." Wouldn't that have been a better way to address this, in retrospect?

Gonzales: Senator, that was -- as I've gone back and reviewed, sort of, the implementation plan -- that was in essence, sort of, a talking point. It was not to get into specifics about issues or concerns about performance. But if you look at the documentation, it is clear that we struggled -- not struggled -- but this was an endeavor to identify those areas where there were issues or concerns about performance. Where we made a mistake, clearly -- I think -- is once we said "performance," we should have defined that. Because performance, for me, means lots of things. It means whether or not you've got the appropriate leadership skills, whether or not you've got the appropriate management skills. It may mean whether or not you support the president's policies and priorities.

By Tim Grieve

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

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