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A Culture of Deniability

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 15, 2007; 4:12 PM

President Bush yesterday acknowledged that he mentioned some Republican complaints about U.S. attorneys to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last fall. And lo and behold, not long after that, a total of eight prosecutors had been purged from their jobs, for reasons the White House has yet to make clear.

Did Bush pull the trigger himself? Apparently not. He says he didn't name names or demand that anybody be fired.

But did he have to?

In any organization, there is such a thing as its "corporate culture." This White House's corporate culture is that Bush gets what he wants. Sometimes, he doesn't even have to say what that is; it's understood.

And no one understands Bush better -- or responds with more alacrity -- than his longtime "enabler", Alberto Gonzales.


Similarly, in spite of the embarrassing revelations contained in the e-mails turned over by the Justice Department to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, the general rule at the White House is that if it's really sensitive, don't put it in writing -- certainly not in an e-mail.

That stuff gets archived.

The president himself, for instance, never uses e-mail at all.

And it now turns out that some of his aides sometimes avoid using their official White House e-mail accounts -- the ones that get automatically archived.

As I wrote in yesterday's column, Tuesday's document dump -- which initiated from the Justice Department, not the White House -- includes e-mails from J. Scott Jennings, Karl Rove's deputy at the White House, coming from an e-mail address at gwb43.com. That's a domain owned by the Republican National Committee.

This raises all sorts of questions. I put four of them to a White House spokesman yesterday, but haven't gotten a response.

The questions:

1) Does White House policy allow White House staffers to use non-White House e-mail addresses for official White House business? Does it prohibit it? What is the policy?

2) Would these e-mails be treated any differently from official White House e-mails when it comes to archiving or subpoena purposes?

3) Does it create either impropriety or the appearance of impropriety that gwb43.com is a domain owned by the Republican National Committee?

4) Do other White House staffers regularly use non-White House e-mail accounts for White House business, and if so, why?

Since then, several readers have e-mailed me with their own questions and comments. So I've added four more, passed those along as well, and still no response:

5) Does non-White House e-mail fulfill security requirements for White House communications?

6) If other non-White House e-mail accounts are used, who are the providers for all of the other accounts? (Any others besides the RNC?)

7) Does White House policy allow White House staffers to use non-White House e-mail addresses from their computers, even for non-official business? I'm told that during the Clinton administration, access to external e-mail, including Web mail, was shut off from White House (eop.gov) computers. Was there a conscious change of policy by the Bush administration?

8) Have there been any recent changes in policy relating to e-mail practices, or are changes in policy contemplated?

It's my understanding that the Presidential Records Act covers staff e-mails -- no matter what domain they come from -- as long as they are generated "in the course of conducting activities which relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President."

Ironically, this would appear to be the flipside of the issue that arose during the Clinton administration, when Vice President Al Gore improperly made fund-raising calls from his White House office. Here, rather than having party business being conducted using official resources, you have official business being conducted using party resources.

Perhaps some of my colleagues in the press can raise these questions at a White House briefing.

Not an Isolated Incident

The use of RNC e-mail by White House staffers is apparently is not entirely unusual.

Also in Tuesday's document dump was a Jan. 8, 2007 e-mail from Steve Bell, the chief of staff to Sen. Pete Domenici, about the senator's preferred replacement for fired U.S. attorney David Iglesias. Bell sent that e-mail to three people -- including one "kr@georgewbush.com".

I wonder who that was.

I called Bell this morning to get a sense of whether the official and political e-mail addresses of White House aides are widely considered to be interchangeable.

"I don't know how they . . . I don't know which is . . . I'm not going to comment on it," Bell said.

And consider this: copies of e-mails between now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Susan Ralston, then an assistant to Karl Rove, showed her using a variety of e-mail addresses at georgewbush.com, rnchq.com and aol.com.

Cover-Up Exposed?

Will this be the nail in Gonzales's coffin?

Murray Waas writes today for the National Journal: "Shortly before Attorney General Alberto Gonzales advised President Bush last year on whether to shut down a Justice Department inquiry regarding the administration's warrantless domestic eavesdropping program, Gonzales learned that his own conduct would likely be a focus of the investigation, according to government records and interviews. . . .

"Bush personally intervened to sideline the Justice Department probe in April 2006 by taking the unusual step of denying investigators the security clearances necessary for their work. . . .

"Sources familiar with the halted inquiry said that if the probe had been allowed to continue, it would have examined Gonzales's role in authorizing the eavesdropping program while he was White House counsel, as well as his subsequent oversight of the program as attorney general."

Waas writes that it isn't clear if Bush knew Gonzales was a potential target of the probe when he intervened. But either way, this is ugly.

If Gonzales told the president he wanted the probe quashed because he himself was in the crosshairs, then you've potentially got Bush personally involved in a cover-up to help his friend. If Gonzales didn't tell Bush that he was a potential target, then the attorney general may have abused his office and misled the president.

Bush's intervention -- though not Gonzales's apparent personal jeopardy -- was first disclosed in July. As I groused in my July 19, 2006 column, it never made the front pages of major newspapers (and then dropped off the radar entirely) even though, as I wrote: "It is not common for a president to personally intervene to stop an investigation of his own administration. The most notorious case, of course, was the Saturday Night Massacre of 1973, during which President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who had been appointed to investigate the Watergate scandal."

But now, with Gonzales on the ropes and Congress back in the business of oversight, this could simply turn out to be a cover-up with a very long fuse.


Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "In testimony on Jan. 18, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales assured the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Justice Department had no intention of avoiding Senate input on the hiring of U.S. attorneys.

"Just a month earlier, D. Kyle Sampson, who was then Gonzales's chief of staff, laid out a plan to do just that. In an e-mail, he detailed a strategy for evading Arkansas Democrats in installing Tim Griffin, a former GOP operative and protege of presidential adviser Karl Rove, as the U.S. attorney in Little Rock. . . .

"The conflict between documents released this week and previous administration statements is quickly becoming the central issue for lawmakers who are angry about the way Gonzales and his aides handled the coordinated firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year. . . .

"The inconsistencies between Justice's positions and the documents are numerous. On Feb. 23, for example, a Justice legislative affairs aide wrote to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that the department 'was not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin.' But internal Justice e-mails show that 'getting him appointed is important' to Rove and was closely monitored by political aides in the White House.

"Last week, senior Justice official William E. Moschella told a House Judiciary subcommittee that the White House was not consulted on the firings until the end of the process."

Blogger Josh Marshall, who has dogged this story from the very beginning, concludes: "Simply put, they lied to Congress. As Eggen correctly notes, prosecutions for lying to Congress are uncommon. And the standards of proof might well be too great to sustain one. But by common sense standards it's clear that neither man testified truthfully when they answered senators' questions earlier this year. Even the emails now public make that clear. That visible deceit in covering up an emerging scandal will be too much for them to stay in office."

Unanswered Questions

Jess Bravin writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The administration has said its initial explanation -- that the prosecutors were fired for poor performance -- wasn't fully accurate. Emails and internal documents provided to Congress this week show that senior White House and Justice Department aides carefully planned last year's dismissals while seeking to contain any political damage and to minimize the Senate's role in selecting their replacements.

"But neither the administration's public statements nor the documents explain why the dismissals became a priority for senior officials, including former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who resigned over the matter this week."

Richard A. Serrano writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The day news broke that a federal corruption probe in Southern California was spreading to Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis, the chief of staff to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales fired off an e-mail to the White House about the federal prosecutor who had begun the investigation.

"'The real problem we have right now is Carol Lam,' D. Kyle Sampson told White House Deputy Counsel William Kelley on May 11. 'That leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires.'"

Gonzales Death Watch

It's hard to say exactly what Bush means when he expresses confidence in an embattled Cabinet secretary. After all, last fall he said then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wasn't going anywhere, even as he was interviewing for Rumsfeld's replacements.

But by most accounts, Bush's expression of confidence in Gonzales yesterday was lukewarm.

Here's the transcript of Bush's news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush publicly scolded Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales on Wednesday, saying he was 'not happy' about the way the firing of several U.S. attorneys was handled by the Justice Department.

"The rare rebuke of one of Bush's closest advisors added to the intensifying debate over whether Gonzales should step aside just two years into his tenure.

"Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) on Wednesday became the first Republican to call for the attorney general to step down.

"And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted Gonzales would have to resign.

"'I don't think he'll last long,' Reid said in an interview with Nevada reporters. Asked how long, Reid responded: 'Days.'"

Robert Schmidt writes for Bloomberg: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's hold on his job is slipping after President George W. Bush, his chief benefactor, said he has some explaining to do and others, including a Republican senator, called for him to step down."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The president's statement did little to tamp down speculation that Mr. Gonzales would be forced to resign. Nor did it settle the growing furor on Capitol Hill, where a Republican senator became the first in his party to call for Mr. Gonzales to step down, and the new White House counsel, Fred F. Fielding, met with lawmakers on the possible testimony of administration officials, including the chief political adviser, Karl Rove. . . .

"A Republican close to the White House said Mr. Fielding would determine whether Mr. Gonzales could remain."

Evan Perez writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that Gonzales "lacks a significant base of support outside the White House. . . .

"His supreme loyalty to President Bush, whom he served as counsel in Texas, helped him become attorney general. But having a power base of one -- a now-unpopular president -- could make it more difficult for Mr. Gonzales to fend off Democratic calls for him to resign over the Justice Department's handling of the firing of eight federal prosecutors."

In a Wall Street Journal interview yesterday afternoon, "Mr. Gonzales said: 'I hire good people, smart people, who know what I expect, what I want. And I rely on them to do their jobs. I was certainly unaware of everything that was going on.'"

Here's a story that reads a bit like an obituary. Eric Lipton and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "Former prosecutors said Mr. Gonzales, relying on advisers who were less experienced prosecutors than their predecessors, took a doctrinaire approach on policy matters, giving front-line lawyers much less discretion on death penalty, gun crime, immigration and even obscenity cases.

"Former prosecutors say that in dealings with lawmakers, administration officials and others who had complaints or were pushing causes, his department took no apparent steps to ensure that its decisions were free -- or at least appeared free -- of political taint. "

The U.S. News Political Bulletin reports: "The tenor of the media coverage leaves little doubt about the atmospherics of the case: ABC World News led its broadcast saying 'the pressure on the Attorney General of the United States to resign is growing,' NBC Nightly News reported 'pressure on . . . Gonzales is building,' and CNN recounts speaking to 'one Republican senator today' commenting on 'what he thinks . . . Gonzales' chances for survival are.' The senator replied, 'I think I have a better chance of winning my Final Four pool.'"

Andrew Cohen, blogging for washingtonpost.com, continues his devastating profile of Gonzales. Today's installment: " 'Empty Suit' AG"

White House Ethics

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "Back in 2000, George W. Bush campaigned on a promise to restore what he called 'the responsibility era' in American politics. . . .

"But now, in the seventh year of his presidency, President Bush seems to be having trouble taking responsibility for his own conversations with his cabinet officials.

"The White House is attempting to defend a single talking point: there were no specifics involved in their conversations with Justice Department officials. But that, too, strains credibility. Bush's aides may not have written the list of U.S. attorneys to be canned. But according to the slew of White House and Justice Department emails released by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Bush's aides were intimately involved--following up repeatedly on conversations about individual attorneys, their replacements, and the overall handling of the plan.

"The administration's response to the U.S. attorneys' story has been plagued by these kinds of contradictions."

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek that the latest news provides "vivid evidence of George W. Bush's contempt for (or, at best, willful ignorance of) the idea that justice should be administered impartially, even by political appointees. Most presidents pay lip service to the concept of independence, even in private discussions. The Bush administration didn't bother.

"Having covered Bush for years, I know where that dismissive attitude comes from: his family, Texas, his inner circle and his own experience--or lack of it."

John Dickerson, writing in Slate, points out the perilous state of chiefs of staff in the Bush administration.

"[W]hen you're a chief of staff in the Bush administration, part of your job requires taking care of business that you're expected not to tell your boss about. When things fall apart, you take the fall. And the boss enjoys plausible deniability.

"The chief of staff is perfect for constructing this wall. He has enough power in the bureaucracy to get things done, but not so much power or prominence that he can't be sacrificed. . . .

"Here's an idea for Democrats in Congress eager to exercise oversight: Subpoena the chiefs of staff of every department. Then ask them what they haven't told their bosses, or what their bosses haven't let them say."

Voter Fraud

I promised you a disquisition on voter fraud today -- whether it exists, what it really signifies, and the central role it may have played in the purge -- but I ran out of time. I'll try again tomorrow.

Veto Proof

Elizabeth Williamson and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "In a bipartisan confrontation with the White House over executive branch secrecy, the House ignored a stern veto threat and overwhelmingly passed a package of open-government bills yesterday that would roll back administration efforts to shield its workings from public view.

"Even top Republicans supported three bills that would streamline access to records in presidential libraries, expand safeguards for government whistle-blowers, and strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which guides public requests for government documents. All were approved with veto-proof majorities."

NCLB Watch

Jonathan Weisman and Amit R. Paley write in The Washington Post: "More than 50 GOP members of the House and Senate -- including the House's second-ranking Republican -- will introduce legislation today that could severely undercut President Bush's signature domestic achievement, the No Child Left Behind Act, by allowing states to opt out of its testing mandates.

"For a White House fighting off attacks on its war policy and dealing with a burgeoning scandal at the Justice Department, the GOP dissidents' move is a fresh blow on a new front. "

Benchmark Watch

Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "The Bush administration, which six months ago issued a series of political goals for the Iraqi government to meet by this month, is now tacitly acknowledging that the goals will take significantly longer to achieve."

Fitzgerald Stays Mum

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who spent years investigating the 2003 leak of a CIA operative's identity, told lawmakers Wednesday that he could offer little help during congressional hearings on the leak.

"Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., asked Fitzgerald last week to meet with members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which will hold hearings on the Bush administration's handling of CIA operative Valerie Plame's classified employment status. . . .

"Fitzgerald said he was prohibited from discussing grand jury testimony and evidence that did not come out at Libby's trial, and he referred Waxman to the volumes of evidence made public during the monthlong trial."

Protest Watch

The group Christian Peace Witness for Iraq is announcing: "Thousands of Christians -- Evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics -- from more than 40 states will fill the Washington National Cathedral to capacity on March 16th to mark the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War. The worship service will be followed by a candlelight procession through the center of our nation's capital to the White House, which thousands of Christians will surround with the light of peace."

According to their Web site, the event will include "nonviolent civil disobedience at the White House to call for a comprehensive plan to end the US war and occupation in Iraq."

Bush's Trip

Peter Baker writes for The Washington Post: "For President Bush, the six-day voyage through Latin America that ended Wednesday proved to be unlike any of his previous foreign trips. It was one in which he tried ever so haltingly to escape the palaces and diplomatic salons long enough to see how people live and to emphasize that it matters to him. . . .

"The unspoken message was that he cares just as much as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and that the United States offers an alternative to the anti-American leftism that has gained ground in Latin America. But commentators in the region have said that message may be too little, too late. Latin Americans have already been abandoned by Bush, they reason, and he is on his way out soon enough. . . .

"But a Freudian slip by the president seemed to indicate that Chávez was, in fact, on his mind as he crossed the region. During an interview in Uruguay, he started telling Greta Van Susteren of Fox News about the hospitality he had received. 'Venezuela has got fantastic meats,' he said, before quickly correcting himself. 'I mean, Uruguay has got fantastic meats.'"

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Try as they might to make President Bush utter the name of his chief Latin American nemesis, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, reporters who covered Mr. Bush's five-nation trip through South and Central America could not succeed.

"Mr. Bush faced at least 11 questions about Mr. Chávez either in interviews immediately preceding his trip or in the mini-briefings he held in each country he visited, including a couple in which Mr. Bush was directly asked about the avoidance.

"Yet not once did he take the bait to say Mr. Chávez's name or to acknowledge him as a person. At one point reporters considered asking him directly, 'Who is the president of Venezuela?' They concluded that it would not only be too ridiculous, but that it probably would not bring the desired result anyway."

Hungry Man

Bush appeared obsessed with food.

Traci Carl asks for the Associated Press: "Is anyone feeding the president?

"At every stop on his seven-day, five-country Latin American trip, including here on Tuesday, President Bush has been fixated on food."

Reuters reports: "Bush's Latin American tour was supposed to be all about diplomacy, but at times he sounded more like he was eating his way across the region."

Bill Plante has a video report for CBS News: "Twice on this trip, the president talked about blueberries. Nobody is quite sure why."

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth on Bush's calendar; Ann Telnaes on life in the royal court; Steve Sack on who's pulling the strings; John Sherffius on Gonzales and the White House; Tom Toles on the mark of Rove.

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