Who made the list?

The question -- well, one of them, anyway -- that Gonzales can't seem to answer.

Published May 10, 2007 2:22PM (EDT)

As Rep. John Conyers said this morning, we still don't know who put names on the list of U.S. attorneys to be fired. If Alberto Gonzales' early testimony before Conyers' House Judiciary Committee is any clue, we're not going to get the answer today, either.

Conyers: I want to ask how the U.S. attorney termination list came to be, who suggested putting most of these U.S. attorneys on the list, and why. Now, that's the question that overhangs everything we're doing here. If we can answer that, I think outside of the reticence of the White House to cooperate, we would make incredible gains in trying to put this matter to rest ... Tell me about it.

Gonzales: Mr. Chairman, I accept full responsibility for the notion of doing an evaluation of the performance of United States attorneys. I think as a matter of good government, we have an obligation as heads of the department to ensure that public servants are in fact doing their job. And therefore, I directed Mr. Sampson -- my then deputy chief of staff, and most recently my former chief of staff -- to coordinate and organize a review of the performance of United States attorneys around the country. I expected that Mr. Sampson would consult with the senior leadership of the department, that he would consult with individuals who would know about the performance about the United States attorneys much more than I.

Conyers: But, Mr. Attorney General, you're the one who is here at the hearing.

Gonzales: Yes.

Conyers: You're the one that we talk to as the Judiciary Committee regularly communicates with the head of the Department of Justice. I approve and congratulate you on all those hearings, and investigation. But tell me -- just tell me -- how the U.S. attorney termination list came to be and who suggested putting most of these U.S. attorneys on the list and why. Now, that should take about three sentences, but take more. But tell me something.

Gonzales: Mr. Chairman, it is my understanding that what Mr. Sampson engaged in was a process of consulting with the senior leadership in the department about the performance of specific individuals, and that toward the end of that process, in the fall of 2006, what was presented to me was a recommendation that I understood to be the consensus recommendation of the senior leadership of the department.

Conyers: OK. In other words, you don't know. And I'm not putting words in your mouth, but you haven't answered the question. I know the procedure, but look, we've got 30-something members of Congress, much of your staff, you've prepared for this, you've been asked something like this question before now ...

Gonzales: Mr. Chairman, if I may respond to that, as I've indicated, I have not gone back and spoken directly with Mr. Sampson and others who are involved in this process, in order to protect the integrity of this investigation and the investigation of the Office of Professional Responsibility and the Office of Inspector General. I am a fact witness, they are fact witnesses and in order to preserve the integrity of those investigations, I have not asked these specific questions. What I'm here today ...

Conyers: OK, so that's why you're not going to answer the question, because you want to protect the integrity of the investigation?

By Tim Grieve

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

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