For months, the Bush administration has declined to directly answer a key question posed by Congress: were more top federal prosecutors targeted for dismissal beyond the nine that have been publicly identified?
In a new letter to senators who have been pushing for the answer, a Justice Department official said only that it was contained in information shared earlier by Justice staff in interviews with Senate aides.
"Wholly unsatisfactory," declared Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a recipient of the letter, blasting the arguably cryptic response.
A Feinstein spokesman confirmed the senator did not believe those interviews had elicited any information useful to determining how many prosecutors had faced firing as part of the White House-coordinated purge.
Last year, the White House political office coordinated an effort with top Justice Department officials to force the departure of at least nine top federal prosecutors. Early claims by Gonzales and other Justice officials that the attorneys were underperforming were later contradicted by evidence obtained by Congress, including glowing performance reviews for those prosecutors.
Feinstein and others have pressed Gonzales for months to give hard numbers on the number of attorneys who have faced termination, with paltry results.
At a January hearing, Feinstein and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., repeatedly asked Gonzales how many prosecutors had been asked to resign in the past year. Gonzales said he did not know the answer.
Months later, after news reports and congressional investigations yielded new details on the firings, Feinstein tried again.
"How many U.S. attorneys did you approve to be summarily fired?" she asked Gonzales at a July 24 hearing.
"There may have been others" besides the nine already identified, Gonzales admitted then. Although he did not know the answer, the attorney general testified, he "would be happy to find out."
The Aug. 10 letter from Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski was his answer.
"We hope that this information is helpful," Benczkowski concluded his letter to Feinstein, Leahy and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn. "Please do not hesitate to contact this office if you would like additional assistance regarding this or any other matter."