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Analysis: Patriot woes weigh on Gonzales

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales listens as he is introduced prior to addressing the International Association of Privacy Professionals, Friday, March 9, 2007 in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON --Another day, another scandal. The Justice Department's improper and illegal use of the USA Patriot Act puts Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on the hot seat, an all-too-familiar place for President Bush's inner circle.

The last thing a troubled president needs is another friend in trouble.

"This strikes me as another blow for the administration," said Republican consultant Joe Gaylord.

He was not the only Republican fretting about the Bush White House after a Justice Department audit criticizing the FBI's use of post-9/11 powers to secretly obtain personal information.

"This is, regrettably, part of an ongoing process where the federal authorities are not really sensitive to privacy and go far beyond what we have authorized," said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Lawmakers were already seething at the Justice Department for the firing of eight federal prosecutors and Gonzales' dismissive response to critics.

"One day there will be a new attorney general, maybe sooner rather than later," Specter said Thursday.

It is too soon to tell whether Gonzales will be forced to leave, but his ouster would do little to change a perception that the Bush administration is unraveling amid declining public support and trust. Some heads have already rolled.

Donald H. Rumsfeld was forced to resign after Democrats seized control of Congress in fall elections that were a repudiation of Bush's policies on Iraq.

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a powerful adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, left the White House to face perjury charges in the investigation of the exposure of a CIA official. He was convicted Tuesday in a trial that also revealed that top Bush aide Karl Rove and a State Department official played roles in the CIA leak, part of a White House strategy to undermine a critic of the Iraq war.

Jim Nicholson, secretary of Veterans Affairs, is clinging to his job amid revelations of shoddy treatment for wounded troops from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The latest events are more heavy baggage for a president who's already close to his limit. Re-elected by a comfortable margin in 2004, Bush watched his job approval rating plummet in 2005 with the rise of violence in Iraq and the government's weak response and follow-up to Hurricane Katrina.

With a rating of just 35 percent, Bush's standing is the weakest of any second-term president at this point in 56 years.

"Gonzales' problems here feed into and build on all of the competence issues that have been dogging the administration since Katrina," said Charles Franklin, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Gonzales, architect of Bush's controversial approach to detaining and interrogating terrorism suspects, drew the wrath of lawmakers when he dismissed the hubbub over fired prosecutors as an "overblown personnel matter." Critics say the U.S. attorneys were dismissed for refusing to do the administration's political bidding.

Under fire, Gonzales beat an abrupt retreat and agreed to accommodate Democratic-led investigations.

On the wrongdoing regarding the Patriot Act, a spokesman for Gonzales said he was incensed by the allegations.

If nothing else, perhaps Gonzales is displaying a scintilla of accountability, a trait the administration reluctantly embraced after Katrina and throughout the Iraq war.

Still, some say it may be time for Gonzales to go.

"The president is dealing with Iraq, Afghanistan and a new Congress, and the last thing in the world he needs is this," said Joseph diGenova, who served as U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia in the Reagan administration. "At some point, he throws up his hands and says 'Get somebody new.' I don't know when that is."

Alarmed by the Justice audit, Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., decried what he called "a failure of leadership" in the agency. The same was said of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Katrina, and now Walter Reed and the VA.


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years.