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White House changing line on fired prosecutors

WASHINGTON – More than two weeks after a New Mexico U.S. attorney alleged he was fired for not prosecuting Democrats, the White House and Justice Department still are struggling to explain the roles of President Bush, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other key officials in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors late last year.

Friday, the White House retreated from its 4-day-old claim that former counsel Harriet Miers had started the process two years ago by proposing the firing of all 93 U.S. attorneys.

“It has been described as her idea … but I don’t want to vouch for origination,” press secretary Tony Snow said. “At this juncture, people have hazy memories.”

In addition, Kyle Sampson, who resigned Monday as Gonzales’ chief of staff, disputed the reasons given for his departure in a statement issued Friday night through his attorney.

“The fact that the White House and Justice Department had been discussing the subject for several years was well-known to a number of other senior officials at the department, including others who were involved in preparing the department’s testimony to Congress,” according to the statement by Sampson’s lawyer, Bradford Berenson.

Snow’s comments mark the latest revision of the administration’s account of the firings, which has shifted repeatedly over the past week as new e-mails and other evidence have come to light in response to congressional demands for information. The precise roles of Gonzales, presidential adviser Karl Rove and the president himself remain unclear, even as calls for Gonzales’ resignation continued to mount.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher ofCalifornia on Friday became the third Republican lawmaker to call for Gonzales’ ouster, saying that “it would benefit this administration if the attorney general was replaced with someone with a more professional focus rather than personal loyalty” to Bush.

The White House rebuffed demands Friday from the House and Senate judiciary committees for more information on the firings, saying the administration needs more time before turning over additional documents or deciding whether to allow key White House officials to testify. The Justice Department announced it would provide new documents to the committees Monday.

The developments capped a tumultuous and difficult week for Gonzales and White House officials, who have attempted to play down the importance of more than 140 pages of documents and e-mails released so far that show the White House was closely involved in an effort to remove a group of federal prosecutors based, in part, on their loyalty to Bush. Officials had previously described the dismissals as being performance-related and handled within the Justice Department.

Seven U.S. attorneys were fired Dec. 7, and another was let go months earlier, with little explanation from Justice Department officials, who later told Congress that the dismissals were related to their performance in office. Several former prosecutors have since alleged intimidation, including improper telephone calls from GOP lawmakers or their aides.