March 14, 2007

The Trap That Gonzales Fell Into

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has fallen into a tough spot, either through his ignorance or by his own machinations. Gonzales testified to Congress that the White House had no involvement in the firings of eight US Attorneys, but a series of memos and e-mails show that his aide planned the terminations with senior White House staff:

Emails between White House aides and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's chief of staff show an orchestrated effort to fire several U.S. attorneys, counter to Mr. Gonzales's previous assertions that the firings weren't instigated by the White House.

The emails released yesterday appear to conflict with statements Mr. Gonzales and other top Justice Department officials made to members of Congress in testimony and letters explaining the prosecutor dismissals. Some lawmakers and former Justice Department officials say Mr. Gonzales, a longtime friend of President Bush who previously served as White House counsel, seems to be acting more as presidential counselor than the nation's top law-enforcement officer.

Mr. Gonzales, who two years ago was touted as a strong possibility to be the first Hispanic chief justice of the Supreme Court, now faces demands for his resignation from some lawmakers and the prospect of frequent appearances before congressional committees investigating the U.S. attorney dismissals. ...

In a news conference yesterday, Mr. Gonzales accepted responsibility for what he called "mistakes," while defending the firings and rejecting calls for his resignation from Democrats in Congress. Justice Department officials say Mr. Gonzales wasn't aware of some of the emails and memorandums between his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and White House officials, which set out plans for carrying out the firings. Mr. Sampson, who resigned Monday, declined to comment yesterday.

"I believe very strongly in our obligation to ensure that when I provide information to the Congress, that it's accurate and that it's complete, and I am very dismayed that that may not have occurred here," Mr. Gonzales said. "I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That's basically what I knew as the attorney general."

That's pretty weak tea, and Gonzales should know it. When an AG makes statements to Congress, by testimony or official correspondence, as affirmative as his statements on the involvement of the White House were, Congress has a right to expect that the AG has explicitly determined the truth of those statements. Otherwise, the proper form would be to state that he has no knowledge of whatever is at issue.

One of two things must be true: either Gonzales knew of the coordination between Harriet Miers and and his aide Kyle Sampson, or he knew nothing. If the former is true, then he deliberately misled Congress. If the latter is true, then Gonzales has serious issues in management skills, and the White House must know it -- because Miers then deliberately bypassed Gonzales.

Neither option holds much benefit for Gonzales. If he knew nothing, then he didn't do much to determine the truth before making representations to Congress on the dismissals. If he did know about the work Sampson and Miers did for most of two years on preparing these dismissals, then Gonzales has opened himself to a contempt charge from Congress. Gonzales has to paint himself a fool rather than a liar in order to salvage his political standing.

The appearance of this report in the Wall Street Journal should underscore the depth of the problem (and my apologies for the rare link to a subscription-only report). The WSJ hardly qualifies as a member of a left-wing cabal of news organizations, and their recognition of the problem demonstrates its scope.

UPDATE: Yes, Clinton fired all 93 federal prosecutors at the start of his term. Yes, it interfered with investigations in process. Most of them, if not all of them, were approaching the expirations of their terms of office, however, and Clinton's unprecedented act was mainly that he "fired" them without having nominated most of their replacements. US Attorneys serve four-year terms coincidental to the presidency, and are retained or dismissed at the end of their terms at the pleasure of whomever occupies the Oval Office. It is unusual to sack US Attorneys mid-term, unprecedented to do so with eight of them at a time, and in the case of Iglesias, to do so with one ranked by the White House as a high performer but whose home-state Senator pushed for termination because of impatience in indicting activists from the opposition party for corruption.

I'm not saying that the firings were illegal, but they were certainly strange, and politically stupid. And, yes, very worthy of criticism -- as have been Gonzales' attempts to explain them away.

And since when do we accept the Clinton standard for ethical conduct, anyway?

UPDATE II: The Congressional Research Service can only find eight examples of mid-term dismissals for US attorneys over the last 25 years -- during which time hundreds of prosecutors served as USAs. The CRS found reasons for five of the eight:

* William Kennedy - Fired by Reagan after making public accusations that the DoJ annd the CIA were interfering in one of his cases (1982).

* J. William Petro - Fired by Reagan for allegations of misconduct; he later got convicted on six counts (1984).

* Larry Cottleton - Resigned after assaulting a reporter (1994).

* Kendall Coffey - Resigned after reportedly biting an exotic dancer on the arm at a strip club (1996).

* Frank MacNamara - Resigned instead of being suspended by AG Richard Thornburgh for allegedly lying about William Weld's use of marijuana (1989).

The CRS could not establish why three other USAs resigned with any degree of certainty, but one served 46 months of a 48-month term before leaving.

In 25 years, we had two outright mid-term dismissals and three mid-term resignations, all for obvious misconduct, and three other indeterminate resignations. Only 54 USAs have left mid-term in 25 years, most of them either appointed as judges or to campaign for elective office, but all of them (but the eight described above) on their own volition and for their own purposes. This should demonstrate the unusual level of dismissals in the short period after Congress allowed the AG to appoint interim USAs without Senate confirmation.

Illegal? No. But it smells.


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Comments (1)

Posted by Bostonian [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 20, 2007 5:26 PM

You said all the same things when Saint Bill fired all 93 federal prosecutors, right? Including the one who was investigating him personally?

Sure you did.