Saying he wanted to be “more precise” about what he had done, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales acknowledged Monday that he had a role in approving an aide’s recommendation to dismiss several U.S. attorneys last year, but he denied that he was involved in the process of identifying which individual prosecutors should be replaced.
Gonzales’ remarks, in an interview with NBC News, were his first seeking to reconcile his public statements about his involvement in the firings with internal e-mails released by the Justice Department on Friday.
The differences between his public words and the private e-mail traffic have added to concerns about Gonzales among members of Congress, a growing number of whom are losing confidence in his management of the Justice Department and are urging him to resign.
But the White House has said that Gonzales continues to enjoy the backing of the president. Gonzales has also said that Justice Department officials will fully cooperate with congressional investigators to show that the firings were not politically motivated, as some critics have alleged.
The attorney general’s efforts to clear the air were dealt a blow Monday, however, when one of his top aides, Monica Goodling, said that she would assert her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Goodling, who had been the department’s liaison with the White House, had been involved in briefing Justice Department officials who this month gave what some lawmakers viewed as misleading testimony about the firings. The Senate Judiciary Committee had requested that she appear voluntarily to answer questions.
John Dowd, a Washington lawyer representing Goodling, said Monday that she would not appear because the committee seemed to be prejudiced against her and the department.
Dowd cited comments by several Democrats on the panel, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who have characterized the earlier testimony as false and misleading.
“The hostile and questionable environment that has been created by the members of the Judiciary Committee in the present proceedings ... is at best ambiguous,” Dowd said. “More accurately, the environment can be described as legally perilous for Ms. Goodling.”
Democrats questioned the decision, which some legal experts viewed as the opening of negotiations by Dowd to obtain immunity for Goodling in exchange for her testimony.
“The American people are left to wonder what conduct is at the base of Ms. Goodling’s concern that she may incriminate herself in connection with criminal charges if she appears before the committee under oath,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
In a second letter to Leahy, Dowd took issue with the insinuation that Goodling had committed crimes, saying that innocent persons also have the right under the law to assert the privilege against self-incrimination.
Goodling is on leave from the Justice Department.
Gonzales’s former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, has agreed to testify before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Sampson resigned March 12.
Gonzales had previously distanced himself from the prosecutorial purge. In a March 13 briefing with reporters, he said that he gave Sampson the job of preparing the list of U.S. attorneys to be removed, and that thereafter he “was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussion.”
But internal Justice Department e-mails and entries from his desk calendar produced to Congress on Friday showed that on Nov. 27, 10 days before the prosecutors were dismissed, Gonzales participated in an hour-long meeting with senior aides about the firings.
In the NBC News interview, Gonzales acknowledged that he was involved in discussions when a recommendation was made to him about whom to fire and about “how to implement” the change. These issues, he said, came “at the end of the process or near the end of the process.”
He also acknowledged that he had contacts on separate occasions with President Bush and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) over the performance of certain prosecutors and said he had periodic discussions with Sampson that “would confirm in my mind that that process [of identifying U.S. attorneys to be dismissed] was ongoing.”
But the attorney general said what he meant by his earlier remarks was that after delegating the job to Sampson, he had not been involved in talks about which prosecutors should be replaced.
His principal concerns, he told NBC, were making sure that the White House was “appropriately advised of the progress of our review” and that Justice Department officials in a position to know about the performance of the prosecutors were involved in the evaluations.
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.