Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) says that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should have an opportunity to explain the details surrounding the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors. But, Sessions says, "there's absolutely no excuse for the Department of Justice trying to improperly interfere with a decision about a specific case."
"If there's any evidence of that," the senator concluded, "I think heads should roll immediately."
Sessions has previously told The New York Times that Gonzales' handling of the U.S. attorneys scandal "casts a cloud over the department." Sessions sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Robert Siegel spoke about the case with Sessions. The full text of the interview is below:
ROBERT SIEGEL: Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama has expressed concern about Attorney General Gonzales's handling of this matter, and he joins us now from Capitol Hill.
Welcome to the program.
SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL): Good to be with you.
MR. SIEGEL: You said the Justice Department is now under a cloud. Do you hold Attorney General Gonzales responsible for that cloud?
SEN. SESSIONS: You know, sometimes those events occur that cause – raise questions based on inadvertence or just error – forgivable error. Sometimes it can be more serious than that. I don't think we know that yet. I believe the attorney general will be forthcoming. He's got some questions he's got to answer. This is a tough town; people are not very forgiving, and he's going to have to answer them clearly and with – and convincingly. I think he can, but we'll have to wait and see.
MR. SIEGEL: You say you think he can, but at the moment does he still enjoy your confidence as attorney general?
SEN. SESSIONS: Well, he's always been a straight shooter to me, a decent person, who I believe has tried to serve his country well. I'm convinced of that.
I've not joined in a call for his resignation, but when a top official in a department is inaccurate in their testimony, we're going to have a look at it. That's just the way it is. And I hope that he will be able to answer that convincingly; that there's no ethical or other mal... intent in misleading Congress. If he did, I think he will be out of there.
MR. SIEGEL: At the moment, from the contradictory explanations that have been given of the dismissals, and the e-mail that was published last night that still contradicts prior accounts. Do you – can you square that simply with a communications problem, or innocent mismanagement, or do you suspect people were trying to get away with telling Congress less than Congress wanted to know?
SEN. SESSIONS: Well, if they were, then people need to be sanctioned for it. Apparently the chief of staff to the attorney general, who was in the middle of most of this, whose e-mails are most prominent, has already been – he's been booted or he resigned. So obviously, there is some suggestion in that, that he did not perform according to the highest standards of the Department of Justice.
But I've got to tell you that I have some sympathy for these people trying to serve in public office. Things are happening around them, a hundred decisions a day; people are in and out of their office discussing matters. It is easy to fail to communicate adequately or to remember adequately, so I think he deserves a real chance to explain what happened.
MR. SIEGEL: You're a former U.S. attorney from southern Alabama.
SEN. SESSIONS: Yes.
MR. SIEGEL: When you read an e-mail from that chief of staff to the attorney general that says approvingly of some U.S. attorneys that they are "loyal Bushies" – those were his words – do you hear a hint in that language of more politicization of Justice Department prosecutors than is healthy?
SEN. SESSIONS: Well, that's not a good philosophy to utilize, I think. You want people – and the president – any president, whether it's President Clinton or President Bush or anyone else, is entitled to United States attorneys who are loyal to his priorities, and they should be that, and if they fail to execute, as some did – some failed, I think, to follow aggressively the priorities of this United States Department of Justice — then I think it's time for a parting of the ways.
United States attorneys are not entitled to keep their office for one day, much less indefinitely. So that's the fact about it. But I think it's not their politics, it should not – and there's absolutely no excuse for the Department of Justice trying to improperly interfere with a decision about a specific case.
MR. SIEGEL: Senator –
SEN. SESSIONS: If there's any evidence of that, I think heads should roll immediately.
MR. SIEGEL: Senator Sessions, thank you very much for talking with us.
SEN. SESSIONS: Thank you.
MR. SIEGEL: Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.