(Gerald Herbert ~ Associated Press)
Gonzales and former White House counsel Harriet Miers made the final decision on whether to fire the U.S. attorneys last year, said Kyle Sampson, the attorney general's former chief of staff.
"I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate," Sampson told a Senate Judiciary Committee inquiry into whether the dismissals were politically motivated.
"I remember discussing with him this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign," Sampson said.
Sampson's testimony, for the first time, put Gonzales at the heart of the firings amid ever-changing Justice Department accounts of how they were planned.
Gonzales has said, repeatedly, that he was not closely involved in the firings and largely depended on Sampson to orchestrate them.
Sampson resigned March 12. A day later, Gonzales said he "never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood" in the firings.
The White House stepped back from defending Gonzales even before Sampson finished testifying.
"I'm going to have to let the attorney general speak for himself," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said as Sampson entered his third hour in front of senators. Perino made it clear that Gonzales needs to explain himself to Congress -- and quickly.
The attorney general is not scheduled to appear publicly on Capitol Hill until April 17. "I agree three weeks is a long time," Perino said.
The Justice Department did not have an immediate comment about Sampson's testimony.
A growing number of Democrats and Republicans has called for Gonzales to step down. Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Thursday the attorney general has no plans to resign.
The Senate committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., stopped short of calling for Gonzales' ouster. But Leahy reminded a reporter Thursday, "I voted against him," when the Senate confirmed the Gonzales as the nation's top law enforcer in 2005.
"If the president feels Mr. Gonzales is upholding the highest level of professionalism that he wants in his administration and that the president wants to be remembered for, then he'll stay on," Leahy said.
The stony-faced Sampson, a longtime and loyal aide to Gonzales, said other senior Justice Department officials helped to plan the firings, which the White House first suggested shortly after President Bush won a second term in 2004.
Sampson said he was never aware of any case where prosecutors were told to step down because they refused to help Republicans in local election or corruption investigations. He also said he saw little difference between dismissing prosecutors for political reasons versus performance-related ones.
"A U.S. attorney who is unsuccessful from a political perspective, either because he or she has alienated the leadership of the department in Washington or cannot work constructively with law enforcement or other governmental constituencies in the district, is unsuccessful," Sampson said.
But Sampson admitted he should have been more careful to prevent Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney general, and William Moschella, the principal associate deputy attorney general, from giving incomplete or misleading information to Congress in describing the dismissals.
Sampson himself was unable to answer many of the senators' specific questions, claiming a fuzzy memory.
Furor over the purge has outraged lawmakers and current U.S. attorneys. With televisions throughout the Justice Department tuned to Sampson's testimony, Gonzales spent two hours trying to soothe a group of seven prosecutors he met with in Washington.
He has held similar meetings across the country and planned to attend one Friday in Boston.
Whether they have done any good is unclear, said Sen. Arlen Specter, the committee's top Republican.
"Right now it is generally acknowledged that the Department of Justice is in a state of disrepair, perhaps even dysfunctional, because of what has happened, with morale low, with U.S. attorneys across the country do not know when another shoe may drop," said Specter, R-Pa.
Sampson also confirmed a large White House role in planning the firings. That undercut the department's long-cherished image of acting independently in pursing crime.
He said that White House political staffers working for presidential aide Karl Rove were involved closely in the plans to replace prosecutors -- as evidenced by thousands of department e-mails released to Congress.
It was Miers, he said, who initially floated the idea of firing all 93 federal prosecutors and ultimately joined Gonzales in approving them.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., asked Sampson whether he saw a "perception problem" with the timing of the firings; several of the prosecutors were investigating cases that could poorly portray Republicans.
"At the time, I personally did not take adequate account of the perception problem that would result," Sampson said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, offered Sampson some support. Cornyn said he had seen no evidence the dismissals were "designed to impede or actually did impede a criminal investigation or prosecution."
Congress and the White House are wrangling over whether Rove, Miers and other administration officials will testify in public about their roles in the firings.
Bush has offered to make them available in private meetings; lawmakers from both parties have rejected that idea.
Specter urged White House officials to testify. But he said he was willing to compromise on some of the terms. "Let's work it out," Specter said. "Let's try to come to terms here to get the information this committee needs so we can make a judgment."
Noting questions about Rove's role in particular, Specter added: "I think we ought to hear from him candidly, sooner rather than later."
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.