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Gonzales to face tough questions on attorney firings

Story Highlights

• Attorney General Gonzales to testify about firings of U.S. Attorneys Thursday
• Gonzales says he has "nothing to hide," denies firings were politically motivated
• Gonzales says his previous statements were "imprecise and overbroad"
• Senators paint testimony as a "make or break" session for Gonzales
By Kevin Bohn
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In what some lawmakers call a make-or-break session, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is expected to face a grilling Thursday testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys last year.

The session was delayed from its original date, Tuesday, due to the shooting at Virginia Tech earlier this week.

In his prepared testimony, which was released Sunday in advance of his appearance, Gonzales said he has "nothing to hide" and "never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people about my role in this matter." (Interactive: View key events in the U.S. Attorneys firings)

"I know that I did not, and would not, ask for a resignation of any individual in order to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain. I also have no basis to believe that anyone involved in this process sought the removal of a U.S. Attorney for an improper reason," said Gonzales in a copy of the prepared testimony.

Gonzales, who has been undergoing intensive preparations for the appearance, is expected to come under tough questioning from members of both parties. (Watch the key questions Gonzales will face Video)

"The Attorney General needs to give specific details," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said in a press conference Wednesday. "The burden is on the Attorney General" to show, for example, why these specific prosecutors were singled out to be fired. (Watch Sen. Schumer outline what he expects from Attorney General Gonzales Video)

"Attorney General Gonzales is going to have to deal with the facts. He won't be able to have generalizations," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the committee, said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." (Full Story: Specter says Gonzales to face 'serious questions')

U.S. Attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the President. But Justice Department officials provoked an outcry from the ex-prosecutors when they initially described the firings as "performance-related," triggering allegations that some in the Bush administration attempted to influence specific justice department investigations.

The former head of the Justice Department's Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys told congressional officials he was not aware of performance problems regarding several of the fired U.S. Attorneys through December 2006, according to Sen. Schumer.

Contradictory statements

Some of the questioning of Gonzales will focus on contradictions between his statements and those of former Justice Department officials.

Gonzales states in his planned opening statement that he "misspoke" at a March 13 press conference, when he said he had not been "involved in any discussions about what was going on" -- a statement later contradicted by his chief of staff Kyle Sampson, who resigned amid the uproar.

"At that same press conference, I made clear that I was aware of the process," Gonzales' testimony says, noting he had mentioned Sampson was involved in determining "who were the weak performers." Gonzales says his statement about discussions was "imprecise and overbroad, but it certainly was not in any way an attempt to mislead the American people."

In his testimony, Gonzales says that while Sampson had given him updates, "During those conversations, to my knowledge, I did not make decisions about who should or should not be asked to resign."

Sampson has said Gonzales was more involved in the process.

Schumer Wednesday also highlighted statements Sampson gave to congressional investigators in an interview on Sunday. According to Schumer, Sampson described a meeting in June 2006 concerning U.S. Attorney Carol Lam that Sampson said the Attorney General attended. Lam is one of the U.S. Attorneys who was later fired.

In his prepared testimony, Gonzales says, "While reasonable people may dispute whether or not the actual reasons for these decisions were sufficient to justify a particular resignation, again, there is no factual basis to support the allegation, as many have made, that these resignations were motivated by improper reasons."

He adds, "While I firmly believe that these dismissals were appropriate, I have equal conviction that the process by which these U.S. Attorneys were asked to resign could have - and should have - been handled differently."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says that the U.S. attorneys were properly dismissed and that he never meant to deceive the American people.

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