Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Alberto Gonzales, the embattled US attorney-general, on Thursday directly contradicted his former boss when he told the Senate that Mr Gonzales had been involved in Bush administration discussions about the controversial firing of eight top prosecutors.

“I don’t think the attorney-general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions about US attorney removals was accurate,” Mr Sampson told the Senate judiciary committee. “The attorney-general was aware of this process from the beginning in early 2005.’”

However Mr Sampson, who resigned earlier this month after internal justice department e-mails directly contradicted testimony his superiors had given to Congress about the sackings, withstood several hours of often hostile questioning without conceding answers that would necessarily force Mr Gonzales’ resignation.

In exchanges that were sometimes reminiscent of the stonewalling by officials in the Nixon administration during the 1970s Watergate investigations, Mr Sampson’s most frequent response to questions was: “I don’t remember” – a phrase he used more than 40 times.

At one stage the former official’s parsimonious and often formulaic answers prompted a rare outburst from Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, who said: “This witness has said a couple of dozen times that he doesn’t remember on things and we’re trying to find out what in heaven’s name he does remember.”

The line of inquiry, which Arlen Specter, the senior Republican member of the committee, pursued with equal vehemence as his Democratic colleagues, focused on the extent to which Mr Gonzales had been involved in the discussions over requiring the eight prosecutors to resign late last year.

Questions also focused on finding out the underlying reasons for their removal, which few believe were based on the apolitical “performance” criteria offered by Mr Sampson.

Senators said they appreciated Mr Sampson’s decision to voluntarily appear before the committee. President Bush has refused to allow the senior White House officials allegedly involved, including Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s senior strategist, and Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, to testify under oath and in public in spite of congressional threats to issue subpoenas. Earlier this week Monica Goodling, a senior lawyer at the Justice Department, declined to testify pleading Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

“In the last seven weeks we have learned the Mr Gonzales was personally involved in the firing plan, after being told that he wasn’t,” said Chuck Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York who is spearheading the probe. “We have learned that the White House was involved after being told that it wasn’t. We’ve learned that Karl Rove was involved after being told that he wasn’t. The list of contradictions, contortions and retractions grows longer every day.”

Thursday’s often theatrical hearing, which lasted the whole day in spite of frequent interruptions so that senators could vote, is unlikely to draw a line under the controversy over the eight prosecutors. Senior officials in the Bush administration say that it is the president’s right to appoint and remove all of the 93 US federal attorneys – a fact that is undisputed.

But Democratic senators believe that the firings are the thin end of a wedge that includes politically-motivated removal of attorneys who were either investigating corruption allegations involving Republicans or else failing to be zealous in the investigation of Republican claims of alleged voter fraud orchestrated by Democrats. Mr Gonzales, whom polls show as the least popular member of the administration along with Dick Cheney, the vice-president, will testify on Capitol Hill next month.

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