WASHINGTON – The Justice Department is asking for "accommodation" from Congress in its response to a wide-ranging subpoena issued Tuesday to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales by the House Judiciary Committee aimed at getting documents, e-mails and other information about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., issued the subpoena and in the letter accompanying the legally binding document request, told Gonzales that he was using the strong measure because there was no "meaningful willingness" to work with his committee's investigation.
"We have been patient in allowing the department to work through its concerns regarding the sensitive nature of some of these materials," wrote Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "Unfortunately, the department has not indicated any meaningful willingness to find a way to meet our legitimate needs."
"At this point further delay in receiving these materials will not serve any constructive purpose," Conyers said. He characterized the subpoena as a last resort after weeks of negotiations with Justice over documents and e-mails the committee wants.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse issued a statement asking for some wiggle room in responding. Officials speaking earlier in the day on condition of anonymity said the subpoena was very broad, and might be difficult to comply with on the deadline set, April 16.
"We have provided an extraordinary amount of information to the Congress so that they and the American people understand the process behind the decision to replace eight of the 93 United States Attorneys," Roehrkasse said.
He went on to say that having provided 3,400 pages of documents and having offered on-the-record interviews with officials, Congress already has many of the documents that were requested in the subpoena. He also said some of the items requested involved U.S. attorneys who no longer work with the department.
Roehrkasse said, "Because there are privacy interests implicated by the public release of this information, it is unfortunate Congress would choose this option. In light of these concerns we will continue to work closely with congressional staff and still hope and expect to be able to reach an accommodation with Congress," he said.
Congressional subpoenas are enforceable in court, and if not adhered to could lead to federal contempt charges. In addition to the escalation of the political stakes in the fight, a subpoena also could lead to fight in the federal courts over separation of powers between Congress and the White House.
Some senior officials speaking with FOX News, however, questioned how much more information they could provide before next week's hearing.
Gonzales is said to be cramming for his appearance next week before the Senate Judiciary Committee in an effort to save his job. Lawmakers have called on him to explain his role in the firings of the U.S. attorneys, which has become a political firestorm after the administration's explanations over how they went about picking who would be fired have changed over time.
Congressional investigators have complained over access to the documents and that some information has been blacked out, or redacted.
The officials speaking with FOX News Tuesday acknowledged it could be possible to provide unredacted versions of documents and emails that already have been sent to Capitol Hill. They also said that continued searches of computer hard drives throughout the department could still turn up relevant documents — and the department has planned to turn over any material fitting that description regardless of subpoenas.
"We have always said we would continue to search, and at some point we might" have more documents, one official said early this afternoon.
One Justice official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that the House request included the full text of all documents that had been partially or completely blacked out in the Justice Department's initial release of more than 3,000 pages last month. The Justice official said some U.S. attorney evaluations were included in these documents.
That official said the request also included an unredacted list ranking the performance and standing of each of the 93 U.S. attorneys. Government officials have previously confirmed that Chicago-based prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, one of the Justice Department's premier U.S. attorneys, was ranked as "not distinguished."
Several Democrats have said statements by Gonzales and his lieutenants, three of whom have resigned in the aftermath of the dismissals, have raised questions over whether the ousters were politically motivated.
The Justice Department denies that, and President Bush has stood behind Gonzales. Nevertheless, calls for a new attorney general have continued.
Along with the subpoenas, Conyers released letters of negotiation between his committee and the Justice Department dating to March 8, when the panel's Democrats requested follow-up interviews with Gonzales' top aides and any documents between the agency and the White House about the firings.
The Justice Department at the time responded by releasing internal communications between agency officials, White House aides and some of the fired prosecutors.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling wrote that the agency blocked information that raised privacy concerns, including the names of prosecutors who were considered for removal but ultimately retained, as well as candidates for judicial appointments.
"We are seeking to preserve the privacy and professional viability of those who are continuing to serve," Hertling wrote.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino had no immediate information about the latest request.
"I think the Justice Department has been working very hard to be fully responsive to the request, as the president asked them to do," Perino said, describing the administration's release of documents. "So I don't know what's new here. We'll have to check it out."
Meanwhile, Gonzales on Tuesday named Kevin J. O'Connor, U.S. attorney for Connecticut, his new chief of staff to replace Kyle Sampson, who had orchestrating the firings for the department and had resigned last month. O'Connor has served since January, 2006, in Washington as an associate deputy attorney general, the department said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy also issued a letter seeking more documents from Gonzales, although it was not couched in the form of a subpoena. Like Conyers, Leahy's committee has given him the authority to issue subpoenas relating to the attorney firings. It is up to Leahy to decide whether to go that route.
FOX News' Ian McCaleb, Molly Hooper and The Associated Press contributed to this report.