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Former top aide says attorney general, White House counsel decided on firing prosecutors

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WASHINGTON — Contrary to his public statements, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was deeply involved in the firing of eight federal prosecutors, his former top aide said Thursday, adding that the final decision on who was to be dismissed was made by Gonzales and President Bush’s former counsel.
    ‘‘I don’t think the attorney general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate,’’ Kyle Sampson, who quit this month as Gonzales’ chief of staff, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. ‘‘I remember discussing with him this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign.’’
    Responding to questions from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Sampson rejected the notion that the dismissals were ordered by young or inexperienced Justice Department officials.
    ‘‘The decision makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president,’’ he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. ‘‘I and others made staff recommendations but they were approved and signed off on by the principals.’’
    The White House response was notably muted.
    ‘‘I’m going to have to let the attorney general speak for himself,’’ White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
    Sampson’s testimony and thousands of e-mails released over the past two weeks point to a much deeper involvement by Gonzales and then-White House counsel Harriet Miers in discussions taking place over several months about which U.S. attorneys to fire.
    ‘‘The attorney general was aware of this process from the beginning in early 2005,’’ Sampson testified Thursday. ‘‘He and I had discussions about it during the thinking phase of the process. Then in the more final phase ... he asked me to make sure that the process was appropriate.’’
    Gonzales said on March 13 that he did not participate in discussions or see any documents about the firings. Documents released last week show he attended a Nov. 27 meeting with senior aides on the topic, where he approved a detailed plan to carry out the dismissals. Gonzales later recanted, saying he had signed off on the plan to fire the prosecutors.
    Sampson, sitting alone at the witness table, said the fired prosecutors were found to be insufficiently committed to the president’s law enforcement priorities. His appearance was the latest act in a political drama that has shaken the Bush administration and imperiled Gonzales’ tenure at the Justice Department.
    Gonzales planned to meet with U.S. attorneys from the mid-Atlantic region at Justice Department headquarters Thursday, wrapping up a multistate tour in which he touted the agency’s crackdown on child predators.
    As he traveled, the Justice Department unraveled, according to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
    ‘‘It is generally acknowledged that the Department of Justice is in a state of disrepair, perhaps even dysfunction, because of what has happened,’’ Specter said. The remaining U.S. attorneys are skittish, he said, ‘‘not knowing when the other shoe may drop.’’
    Sampson said he would testify as long as need be. His comments contradicted Gonzales’ earlier denial of being involved in the firings, as well as the attorney general’s suggestion that two other Justice Department officials misled Congress about the firings because they had been badly briefed.
    ‘‘I don’t think it’s accurate if the statement implies that I intended to mislead the Congress,’’ Sampson said. ‘‘I shared information with anyone who wanted it. I was very open and collaborative in the process.’’
    Sampson also testified the prosecutors were fired last year because they did not sufficiently support Bush’s priorities, defending a standard that Democrats called ‘‘highly improper.’’
    ‘‘The distinction between ’political’ and ’performance-related’ reasons for removing a United States attorney is, in my view, largely artificial,’’ Sampson said.
    ‘‘Some were asked to resign because they were not carrying out the president’s and the attorney general’s priorities,’’ he said. ‘‘In some sense that may be described as political by some people.’’
    He denied that any prosecutor was fired for pursuing corruption cases that might hurt the administration. ‘‘To my knowledge, nothing of the sort occurred here,’’ Sampson told the committee.
    Democrats rejected the concept of mixing politics with federal law enforcement. They accused the Bush administration of cronyism and trying to circumvent the Senate confirmation process by installing favored GOP allies in plum jobs as U.S. attorneys.
    ‘‘We have a situation that’s highly improper. It corrodes the public’s trust in our system of Justice,’’ said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. ‘‘It’s wrong.’’
    Sampson acknowledged that at one point he had advocated using a new provision in the Patriot Act to get around Senate confirmation of new federal prosecutors, but Gonzales rejected the suggestion.
    ‘‘He thought it was a bad idea and he was right,’’ Sampson said.
    Sampson, who quit earlier this month amid the furor, disputed Democratic charges that the firings were a purge by intimidation and a warning to the remaining prosecutors to fall in line.
    Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, offered Sampson some support, saying he had seen no evidence that the dismissals were ‘‘designed to impede or actually did impede a criminal investigation or prosecution.’’
    Hours before Sampson’s testimony, the Justice Department admitted that it gave senators inaccurate information about the firings and presidential political adviser Karl Rove’s role in trying to secure a U.S. attorney’s post in Arkansas for one of his former aides, Tim Griffin.
    Justice officials acknowledged that a Feb. 23 letter to four Democratic senators erred in asserting that the department was not aware of any role Rove played in the decision to appoint Griffin to replace U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins in Little Rock, Ark.
    Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling said that certain statements in last month’s letter to Democratic lawmakers appeared to be ‘‘contradicted by department documents included in our production.’’
    Associated Press Writers Lara Jakes Jordan and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.
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