Friday, March 09, 2007

Are Attorney General's Days Numbered?

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales agreed yesterday to change the way U.S. attorneys can be replaced, a reversal in administration policy that came after he was browbeaten by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee still angry over the controversial firings of eight federal prosecutors.

Gonzales told Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and other senior members of the committee that the administration will no longer oppose legislation limiting the attorney general's power to appoint interim prosecutors. Gonzales also agreed to allow the committee to interview five top-level Justice Department officials as part of an ongoing Democratic-led probe into the firings, senators said after a tense, hour-long meeting in Leahy's office suite.

The concessions represent a turnaround by the White House and the Justice Department, which have argued for three months that Gonzales must have unfettered power to appoint interim federal prosecutors and have resisted disclosing details about the firings.

But the administration has been battered by mounting allegations that several of the fired prosecutors -- six of whom testified before Congress on Tuesday -- had been the subject of intimidation, including improper telephone calls from GOP lawmakers or their aides, and alleged threats of retaliation by Justice Department officials. One prosecutor told lawmakers this week that he felt "leaned on" by a senior Republican senator, and Senate Democrats have readied subpoenas for five key members of Gonzales' inner circle of advisers.

The capitulation came just hours after several leading Senate Republicans sharply criticized Gonzales for his handling of the issue. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, seemed to suggest that Gonzales's tenure may not last through the remainder of President Bush's term.

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