By LAURIE KELLMAN
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - His job in jeopardy, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Thursday his decision to fire eight federal prosecutors was ``justified and should stand.''
In remarks prepared for the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales also said that ``reasonable people might disagree'' with the decision. He said the process by which the eight were dismissed was ``nowhere near as rigorous or structured as it should have been.''
Gonzales began his turn as a witness after Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee's chairman, delivered a tongue-lashing in the opening moments of the widely anticipated hearing.
``Today the Department of Justice is experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled during its 137-year history,'' said the Vermont Democrat. ``There's a growing scandal swirling around the dismissal'' of prosecutors, he added.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the panel's senior Republican, offered the attorney general no more comfort in his opening remarks.
He said the purpose of the hearing was to determine whether the committee believes that Gonzales should remain in office. ``As I see it, you come to this hearing with a very heavy burden of proof,'' Specter said as Gonzales listened intently, lips pursed, a few feet away in the crowded hearing room.
``This is not a game of gotcha,'' said Specter. In a reflection of the stakes, he told the attorney general he faces the equivalent of a ``reconfirmation hearing.''
Gonzales himself has provided differing versions of the events, first saying he had almost no involvement in them and then later acknowledging that his role was larger - but only after e-mails about meetings he attended were released by the Justice Department to House and Senate committees.