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Senators demand details from Gonzales

Say testimony must wait until information given

In this photograph provided by 'Meet the Press,' Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., appears on 'Meet the Press'' Sunday, April 1, 2007, at the NBC studios in Washington. (AP Photo/Meet The Press, Alex Wong) ** NO SALES, NO ARCHIVE, MUST USE BEFORE APRIL 8, 2007, MUST CREDIT 'MEET THE PRESS' ** In this photograph provided by "Meet the Press," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., appears on "Meet the Press'" Sunday, April 1, 2007, at the NBC studios in Washington. (AP Photo/Meet The Press, Alex Wong) ** NO SALES, NO ARCHIVE, MUST USE BEFORE APRIL 8, 2007, MUST CREDIT "MEET THE PRESS" ** (AP )

WASHINGTON -- Senators investigating the firings of federal prosecutors said yesterday that they must have details of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's role before he can testify.

The request by the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, was made as a separate Senate panel shelved its own meeting next week with Gonzales because the firings have overshadowed all other issues connected to him.

"It would be very difficult in this environment to give the department's budget request the attention it deserves until the Senate has examined the department's leadership failures," said Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland. She heads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Justice Department spending and had planned to hear from Gonzales on April 12.

The delay further frustrates the White House's push for Gonzales to give lawmakers his side of the story as Democrats and Republicans alike call for his resignation over the US attorney firings.

Gonzales has been forced to clarify his role in the firings after first saying, on March 13, he "was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on." That statement was later contradicted by documents and testimony by Kyle Sampson, formerly the attorney general's top aide.

Sampson told Leahy's committee that Gonzales was briefed regularly about the firings and "this process of asking certain US attorneys to resign."

Gonzales says he was not involved in selecting which prosecutors to dismiss and largely relied on Sampson to handle the firings.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the delay was "disappointing."

"The attorney general has said that he would testify in hearings regarding Department of Justice appropriations, US attorneys, or other issues of interest to the Senate whenever they could be scheduled," Fratto said.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said it was regrettable.

Leahy, in a letter dated Wednesday and released yesterday, noted that his committee set its hearing for April 17 -- a date initially requested by Gonzales.

He asked Gonzales to produce "a full and complete account of the development of the plan to replace United States attorneys and all the specifics of your role in connection with that matter." Leahy asked for the information at least two days before the hearing, but added that "nothing prevents you from providing" it earlier.

Leahy criticized Gonzales, saying he failed to answer about 200 written questions following his January appearance before the committee. At the time, he was asked about the firings, as well as a secret court's oversight of spying on suspected terrorists and FBI leaks in corruption investigations.

"You would not tolerate this kind of response time in a Justice Department investigation where months go by without answers and when those answers are finally provided they are outdated or superseded by events," Leahy wrote. "That is not conducive to effective oversight."

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Gonzales "will have to answer some important questions" at the hearing.

"He's going to have to explain what appears to be inconsistent statements which he made when he said he was not involved in discussions when e-mails showed that he was at meetings," Specter said in Pittsburgh. The senator said the attorney general also will have to address the FBI's improper and, in some cases, illegal use of national security letters to get personal client data from telephone and Internet companies.

Meanwhile, the former US attorney in New Mexico, David Iglesias, said he is talking with the government's independent counsel about whether department officials violated federal law when they included him among the fired prosecutors.

The Office of Special Counsel is looking into whether Iglesias's firing may have violated a law that protects military reservists from discrimination. It is also examining possible violations of laws designed to protect whistle-blowers and prohibit political activity by government employees, Iglesias said in an interview this week.