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THE NATION

Gonzales urged to quit `for the nation'

The No. 3 Democrat in the Senate says the attorney general has politicized the Justice Department.

March 12, 2007|Walter F. Roche Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales has so politicized the Justice Department that he should step down for the sake of the nation, the Senate's third-ranking Democrat said Sunday.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York -- citing recent disclosures about the FBI's improper use of administrative subpoenas to obtain private records and the controversy over the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys in December -- told CBS' "Face the Nation" that Gonzales, who previously served as White House counsel, was "no longer just the president's lawyer, but has a higher obligation to the rule of law and the Constitution."

Schumer, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, charged that under Gonzales the Justice Department had become even more politicized than it was under President Bush's first attorney general, John Ashcroft.

"And so," Schumer said, "I think for the sake of the nation, Atty. Gen. Gonzales should step down."

Appearing on the same program, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not go so far as to suggest that Gonzales step down.

But he said that a report released Friday by the Justice Department's inspector general raised questions about the investigatory powers given to federal agents under the Patriot Act, which Congress reauthorized last year.

Resignation, Specter said, is "a question for the president and the attorney general, but I do think there have been a lot of problems. Before we come to conclusions, I think we need to know more facts."

Specter said the inspector general's report showed widespread violations of Patriot Act requirements designed to protect privacy rights of U.S. citizens.

Stating that the act has been "very badly abused," Specter said Judiciary Committee hearings planned for this month -- including one with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III -- not only should look at the failures but should include "very active consideration about withdrawing some of those powers."

As for the alleged firing of U.S. attorneys for political reasons, Specter said he was concerned about the removal of the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, David C. Iglesias, who has said he received calls last year from two GOP members of Congress from New Mexico, Sen. Pete V. Domenici and Rep. Heather A. Wilson. The legislators, he told Congress last week, were asking about the progress of a corruption investigation against Democrats in the state, and he said he interpreted the calls as pressure to bring indictments before the 2006 midterm elections.

Specter said he was less concerned whether politics had been involved in the removal in 2005 of a U.S. attorney in Maryland, Thomas DiBiagio. Specter said DiBiagio had claimed similar political pressure from legislators but had failed to immediately report any calls he had received. There were "really good reasons" for DiBiagio's dismissal, Specter added.

Though Justice Department officials say that the U.S. attorneys ousted in December were removed for performance-related reasons, critics have charged that the dismissals were politically motivated and, in some cases, followed complaints that the prosecutors had failed to aggressively investigate Democrats.

Appearing on CNN's "Late Edition," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), another Judiciary Committee member, said that "Gonzales has lost the confidence of the vast majority of Americans."

Responding to the senators' comments, a Justice Department spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, said in a written statement that Gonzales had demonstrated "decisive leadership by demanding a new level of accountability."

On Saturday, during a question-and-answer session with reporters in Montevideo, Uruguay, Bush expressed continued confidence in both Gonzales and Mueller.

wally.roche@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.

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