WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales acknowledged yesterday that "mistakes were made" in the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys last year, but he rejected new calls for his resignation from Democrats incensed by fresh evidence that the Bush administration had inaccurately informed Congress about its role in the matter.
The increasing pressure on Gonzales coincided with the House Judiciary Committee's release of e-mail messages between Justice Department officials and the White House detailing a quiet two-year campaign to oust U.S. attorneys who had fallen out of favor with the administration.
The e-mail undercuts the sworn testimony of Justice officials, including Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, the department's No. 2 official, about the dismissals. The release of the messages put the White House and the Justice Department on the defensive and fueled the controversy on Capitol Hill.
The Senate Judiciary Committee stepped up its investigation, sending letters seeking cooperation from past and present White House officials, including President Bush's top political strategist, Karl Rove. The panel also sent letters to Gonzales and White House Counsel Fred Fielding seeking documents relating to the firings.
Gonzales sought to contain the firestorm at a hastily called news briefing, accepting responsibility for the ouster of the eight prosecutors and acknowledging that the situation had been handled poorly. But he said he would continue in the job and pinned most of the blame on the failure of his chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, to keep him and other department officials informed. Sampson resigned Monday.
"I am here not because I give up," Gonzales said. "I am here because I've learned from my mistakes, because I accept responsibility and because I'm committed to doing my job."
Gonzales canceled travel plans in order to address the issue. He had sought previously to play down the dismissals, calling them an overblown personnel matter.
But Democrats increased the pressure on Gonzales yesterday. "It appears to me he is over his head in this job," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Echoing his words were past or present Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Some Republicans expressed concern about Gonzales' leadership but said they were withholding judgment.
"I want to see if he's willing to make the changes that are necessary at the Department of Justice because things have been handled poorly to this point," said Sen. John Ensign of Nevada. "We're going to find out what kind of leader he is during this crisis."
"I'm certainly not going to defend how they handled these things," said Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi. Asked whether Gonzales should go, Lott replied, "That's the president's decision."
The White House defended the attorney general and the decision to remove the prosecutors. Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush and Gonzales had not discussed the controversy and that Gonzales had not offered to resign. "The original decision to remove the seven U.S. attorneys, who serve at the discretion of the president, was the right decision," Bartlett said in Merida, Mexico, where Bush is meeting with President Felipe Calderon.
Bartlett acknowledged that in October 2006, after receiving complaints from members of Congress, Bush discussed with Gonzales the issue of whether U.S. attorneys were adequately enforcing voter-fraud laws. But the conversation was routine and appropriate, Bartlett said, adding that the two did not discuss specific prosecutors. "There was no directive given, as far as telling him to fire anybody or anything like that," he said.
Bartlett disputed the notion that Sampson had become a scapegoat. "All the decisions that were made with regard to the removal of these U.S. attorneys were proper decisions," Bartlett said. "What was not done properly and didn't live up to the standards of the attorney general of the Bush administration was the fact that Mr. Sampson didn't share that information as freely as he should have with members of his own team at the Department of Justice who were going up to Congress to testify about this."
Sampson could not be reached for comment.
The president appoints U.S. attorneys in each of the 93 federal court districts. But Democrats say the Bush administration has set a dangerous precedent with the dismissals. None of the eight prosecutors had been accused of any misconduct in office. Some said they felt pressured by Republicans in their home states to investigate Democrats.
Gonzales' supporters have noted that President Bill Clinton removed every U.S. attorney when he took office in 1993, citing the action as evidence that political motives have always infused the selection of U.S. attorneys.
Hillary Clinton sought yesterday to differentiate that situation from the current one. "When a new president comes in, a new president gets to clean house," she said in an interview to be broadcast today on ABC's Good Morning America. "It's not done on a case-by-case basis where you didn't do what some senator or member of Congress told you to do in terms of investigations into your opponents."
The controversy arose when seven U.S. attorneys were dismissed on one day last December. Last summer, an eighth was replaced by a former aide to Rove. When reports of the firings surfaced, the Justice Department took the position that they were internal decisions based on performance.
But the e-mails show that the White House was involved in the dismissals from the beginning, and that officials there regularly passed on information to the Justice Department about complaints they had received about individual prosecutors, and how and when to replace them.
The purge started with a suggestion by then-White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers in February 2005 that all 93 U.S. attorneys be replaced, apparently part of a move to give Republican lawyers a chance to burnish their resumes. Gonzales said he rejected that idea and detailed Sampson to evaluate whether individual prosecutors should be dismissed. Eventually, Sampson worked out a five-step Plan for Replacing Certain United States Attorneys, with instructions and talking points.
Richard B. Schmitt and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times.