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White House in retreat on flap over US attorneys

Gonzales offers concessions after firing of eight

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was criticized for his opinion piece in USA Today.

WASHINGTON -- Slapped even by GOP allies, the Bush administration is beating an abrupt retreat on eight federal prosecutors it fired and then publicly rebuked.

Just hours after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales dismissed the hubbub as an "overblown personnel matter," a Republican senator Thursday mused into a microphone that Gonzales might soon suffer the same fate as the canned US attorneys.

"One day there will be a new attorney general, maybe sooner rather than later," Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter said during a Judiciary Committee meeting.

A short time later, Gonzales and his security detail shuttled to the Capitol for a private meeting on Democratic turf, bearing two offerings:

  • President Bush would not stand in the way of a Democrat -sponsored bill that would cancel the attorney general's power to appoint federal prosecutors without Senate confirmation. Gonzales's Justice Department had previously dismissed the legislation as unreasonable.

  • There would be no need for subpoenas to compel testimony by five of Gonzales's aides involved in the firings, as the Democrats had threatened. Cloistered in the stately hideaway of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, the attorney general assured those present that he would permit the aides to tell their stories.

    The Justice Department is shifting from offense to accommodation.

    "In hindsight, we should have provided the US attorneys with specific reasons that led to their dismissal that would have helped to avoid the rampant misinformation and wild speculation that currently exists," Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said yesterday.

    "We will continue to work with Congress to reach an accommodation on providing additional information."

    It was a striking reversal for an administration noted for standing its ground even in the face of overwhelming opposition.

    Gone were the department's biting assertions that the prosecutors were a bunch of "disgruntled employees grandstanding before Congress."

    And the department no longer tried to shrug off the uproar as "an overblown personnel matter," as Gonzales had written in an opinion piece published Thursday in USA Today.

    Agency officials also ceased describing majority Democrats as lawmakers who "would rather play politics" than deal with facts.

    The shift was so abrupt that one of Bush's chief advisers who was speaking out of town Thursday apparently missed the memo.

    "My view is this is unfortunately a very big attempt by some in the Congress to make a political stink about it," presidential adviser Karl Rove said Thursday during a speech in Arkansas.

    Back in Washington, a consensus was emerging among senators of both parties, and Gonzales himself, that the firings had been botched chiefly because the prosecutors had not been told the reasons for their dismissals. The matter snowballed -- some of those fired complained publicly, and a senior Justice Department official warned one that further complaints taken to the news media would force the agency to defend itself, according to an e-mail made public this week.

    On Tuesday during an eight-hour marathon of congressional hearings, the Justice Department followed through.

    William Moschella, principal associate deputy attorney general, publicly enumerated the reasons each prosecutor was fired.