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Last Updated: Monday, 27 August 2007, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Q&A: Fired prosecutors row
US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
Alberto Gonzales fought to hold onto his job for several months
The row over the firing of eight US federal prosecutors has rumbled on for months, pitting members of Congress against the Bush administration.

At the heart of the dispute was the US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales - the nation's top law-enforcement officer and an old friend of President George W Bush.

He announced his resignation on 27 August, after facing repeated calls to resign over the affair.

Opponents said he fired the eight attorneys for political reasons, then lied about the reason for their dismissal.

Mr Gonzales said he did nothing wrong, pointing out that US attorneys serve at the will of the president, who can dismiss them at any time.

He enjoyed the support of Mr Bush but became increasingly isolated following the resignation of his deputy, Paul McNulty, in May and other justice department officials.

Congress issued subpoenas for documents relating to the dismissal of the prosecutors and ordered White House officials to testify under oath about what happened.

The White House exerted executive privilege to refuse to hand over the subpoenaed papers and made it clear the officials would not testify.

How did this row begin?

The US Department of Justice fired seven US attorneys on a single day in December 2006, a highly unusual move, but not an illegal one.

It followed the removal of another US attorney in June of 2006, bringing the total to eight - almost one in 10 US attorneys nationwide.

Critics of the move - including some of the attorneys who were fired - say it was politically motivated.

They say the firings were meant to halt investigations into Republican officials or punish the attorneys for failing to prosecute Democrats.

Mr Gonzales - the head of the justice department - said politics played no role in the dismissals.

He insisted the attorneys were sacked because they were under-performing but conceded the firings were handled poorly.

How did Congress respond?

Congress - which has been controlled by Democrats since January - demanded thousands of pages of justice department documents related to the firings.

The paper trail indicated that White House officials including the president's then top political strategist, Karl Rove, knew of discussions about firing the attorneys nearly two years before the axe fell on them.

Congress demanded that Mr Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers, political director Sara Taylor and others testify in public, under oath, about the firings.

The president offered to let them speak privately to some members of Congress, but firmly rejected the demand for public testimony under oath.

Mr Gonzales testified before both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees but was criticised by Democrats for his perceived stone-walling of questions.

His former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, resigned in March, shortly before testifying that the attorney general was more involved in the firings than he had acknowledged.

A judge granted former Gonzales aide Monica Goodling, who also resigned, immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony to Congress.

What exactly is a US attorney?

A US attorney - sometimes known as a federal prosecutor - is the top representative of the justice department in his or her district.

There are 93 of them nationwide.

They prosecute cases where the government is the plaintiff, and represent it when it is a defendant.

They are appointed by the president to four-year terms and can be dismissed at will.

Under the anti-terror law known as the USA Patriot Act, the attorney general can name new US attorneys without the advice or consent of Congress - a provision Congress is seeking to reverse.

If US attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, why was there such a fuss about these dismissals?

No-one disputes that the president (and by extension, the attorney general) has the power to remove US attorneys at will.

But although they are political appointees, they are supposed to be politically independent - so traditionally they are not dismissed singly or in groups during a president's term.

The anger in this case stems from the suspicion that politics played a role in these firings - and that the White House and justice department have not been honest about the reasons.

What is executive privilege?

Executive privilege allows the president and certain other members of the executive to decline to produce documents and testimony demanded by another branch of government even when faced with a subpoena, if it is deemed vital they remain confidential.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Alberto Gonzales' political career



SEE ALSO
Bush ally Gonzales 'steps down'
27 Aug 07 |  Americas
Bush rejects Senate 'show trials'
21 Mar 07 |  Americas
Bush 'not happy' at US sackings
14 Mar 07 |  Americas
US justice head admits 'mistakes'
13 Mar 07 |  Americas



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