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Sununu calls for AG to be fired

Bush expresses confidence in job Gonzales has done

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he intends to cooperate with Congress.

WASHINGTON -- Senator John E. Sununu of New Hampshire became the first Republican in Congress to call for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's dismissal yesterday, hours after President Bush expressed confidence in his embattled Cabinet officer.

Gonzales has been fending off Democratic demands for his firing after disclosures surrounding the ousters of eight US attorneys -- dismissals Democrats have characterized as a politically motivated purge.

Support from many Republicans has been muted, but there had been no outright GOP call for his dismissal.

"I think the president should replace him," Sununu said in an interview. "I think the attorney general should be fired."

Bush, at a news conference in Mexico, told reporters when asked about the controversy: "Mistakes were made. And I'm frankly not happy about them."

But the president expressed confidence in Gonzales, a longtime friend, and defended the firings. "What Al did and what the Justice Department did was appropriate," he said.

Still, Bush acknowledged the attorney general had a problem to address.

"What was mishandled was the explanation of the cases to the Congress," Bush said. "And Al's got work to do up there."

The developments unfolded as presidential aides labored to protect White House political director Karl Rove and former counsel Harriet E. Miers from congressional subpoenas.

The White House sent Fred Fielding, the presidential counsel, to Capitol Hill to negotiate the terms of any testimony by White House aides in an institutional tug of war reminiscent of the Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals.

Sununu said the firings of the prosecutors, together with a report Friday by the Justice Department's inspector general criticizing the administration's use of secret national security letters to obtain personal records in terrorism probes, shattered his confidence in Gonzales.

"We need to have a strong, credible attorney general that has the confidence of Congress and the American people," said Sununu, who faces a tough reelection campaign next year. "Alberto Gonzales can't fill that role."

The White House response was curt. "We're disappointed, obviously," said White House press secretary Tony Snow.

Sununu has long been a critic of what he has said were the White House's disregard for civil liberties in its war on terrorism. He played a large part in forcing the administration to accept new curbs on its power during the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act last year.

Some of the dismissed prosecutors complained at hearings last week that lawmakers tried to influence political corruption investigations. Several also said there had been Justice Department attempts to intimidate them.

E-mails between the Justice Department and the White House, released Tuesday, contradicted the administration's earlier contention that Bush's aides had limited involvement in the firings.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, predicted yesterday that Gonzales would soon be out.

"I think he is gone," Reid said in an interview with reporters from his state. "I don't think he'll last long."

Asked how long, Reid responded: "Days."

Fielding, negotiating with lawmakers over possible administration testimony, is a veteran of the Nixon and Reagan White Houses. He was hired by Bush this year to handle these kinds of demands by the Democratic-controlled Congress.

It was unclear whether Bush would grant Democratic requests for his aides to tell their stories under oath.

Gonzales, in a brief hallway interview with reporters, said he intended to cooperate where his aides are concerned. "We want Congress to know, to understand what happened here," he said. "We'll go. We'll work it out."

Republicans weren't immediately piling behind Sununu's call for Gonzales's firing.

"I don't believe the attorney general should resign over this," said Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. "I don't believe his ability to pursue the terrorist threat has been compromised to the extent that he should resign."

The House and Senate Judiciary Committees have invited Rove; Miers; and her deputy, William K. Kelley, to testify voluntarily about their roles in the firings. Gonzales has pledged to allow five of his aides to testify.

As insurance, the Senate panel is expected to consider subpoenas for the whole group today.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, told reporters after the meeting with Fielding that the counsel promised a yes-or-no answer by tomorrow .

US attorneys are the federal government's prosecutors and serve at the pleasure of the president. They can be hired or fired for any reason or none at all.

However, when the White House dismissed eight federal prosecutors without explanation, Democrats accused the administration of trying to make way for political allies.

The fired prosecutors are Carol Lam and Kevin Ryan of California, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, Paul Charlton of Arizona, John McKay of Washington state, Daniel Bogden of Nevada, David Iglesias of New Mexico, and Margaret Chiara of Michigan.