Gonzales Cramming for Critical Hearing

In the last week or so the attorney general has been studying, cramming for his April 17 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee as if it were a final exam.

Gonzales knows what's at stake: his job. The conventional thinking around Washington is that the attorney general's future is riding on his performance.

To prepare for the grilling he is likely to face from angry senators, the attorney general has been reviewing thousands of pages of documents related to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Conflicting testimony before Congress about why the prosecutors were fired -- whether they were fired for poor performance or perhaps for political reasons -- have created a brewing political storm for the Justice Department.

In preparation, Gonzales may also be participating in mock sessions with Justice Department officials or outsiders playing the role of an irate senator or two.

Gonzales has faced a barrage of negative press in part because of his confusing and sometimes conflicting testimony that Democrats have seized upon. Most under scrutiny now are his statements that he did not take part in any discussions about the firing of those eight U.S. attorneys.

After an internal administration e-mail was released showing he was part of a Nov. 27, 2006 meeting with senior staff to discuss the firings, Gonzales clarified his statements. He explained that he was involved in the final decisions -- but not in developing the list of who was to be fired. But when his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, contradicted that timeline during a hearing two weeks ago, the controversy was stoked once again.

Part of Gonzales' difficulty is that his entire department's answers to questions from Capitol Hill have been -- in a word -- conflicted. And in recent weeks, we have begun to get some answers as to why.

Gonzales clearly did not have all the answers about how the firing of these U.S. attorneys unfolded. Sampson suggested the reason why during his testimony. The process of firing the U.S. attorneys was conducted in a less than precise manner with almost no documentation.

Here's what Sampson said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on March 29.

"Senator, let me be clear," Sampson said to Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. "As I said in my opening statement, the process was not scientific and it wasn't well documented."

Sampson went on to say: "There really was no file. There really was no documentation of this. It was an aggregation of views and various lists and notes at different points in time."

When Gonzales goes before the Senate Judiciary committee, expect senators and the press to zero in on this seemingly haphazard process. Critics point to this: Exactly how did the attorney general make an informed decision about the firings if this process was so haphazard and flawed? Many observers believe Gonzales is going to have to address this issue head on.

One of the reasons that many of the fired U.S. attorneys were so steamed is that they were given no explanation about why they were fired at the time of their dismissals. Since then, they have been described by DOJ officials as poor performers.

Sources tell ABC news the affair has hurt morale within the Justice Department. Gonzales has been trying to repair the internal damage. In recent weeks he has has met privately with roughly 70 of the country's 93 U.S. attorneys to reassure them.

The Justice Department and the White House continue to maintain their position that the president has the authority to fire any U.S. attorney at will, and that nothing in this firestorm has produced any evidence that anything illegal or unethical happened.

Democrats argue that is it still unclear what happened and whether politics played a major role in these firings, and the White House has yet to offer specific insight into what officials there did or did not know.

But for now the focus is on the attorney general. Make no mistake, he has a lot of explaining to do.