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The Politics of Distraction

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 16, 2007; 2:50 PM

As far as the White House public-relations machine is concerned, here is all you need to know about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year: The Justice Department made some mistakes in how it communicated that those prosecutors were let go for appropriate reasons. And, oh yes, there is no evidence that White House political guru Karl Rove ever advocated the firing of all 93 U.S. attorneys previously appointed by President Bush.

But from the very beginning of this scandal, the central question has been and remains: Was there a plot hatched in the White House to purge prosecutors who were seen as demonstrating insufficient partisanship in their criminal investigations?

Everything else is deception or distraction.

The latest development in the case is an e-mail chain showing that Rove and Alberto Gonzales (then White House counsel, soon to become attorney general) were both mulling the idea of replacing U.S. attorneys as early as the first month of Bush's second term.

According to the e-mails, Rove stopped by the White House counsel's office in early January 2005 to find out whether it was Gonzales's plan to keep or replace all or some of the U.S. attorneys that Bush had appointed in his first term.

And it just so happened that Kyle Sampson, soon to become the attorney general's chief of staff, had discussed that very issue with Gonzales a few weeks earlier. "As an operational matter," Sampson wrote in a e-mail, "we would like to replace 15-20 percent of the current U.S. Attorneys -- the underperforming ones. . . . The vast majority of U.S. Attorneys, 80-85 percent I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc., etc."

The response from White House spokesmen to this latest disclosure is that there is no conflict with their earlier story, which was that Rove opposed the firing of all 93 attorneys -- an idea they earlier credited to Harriet Miers, who succeeded Gonzales as White House counsel.

But as I first wrote in Tuesday's column, the proposed housecleaning of all 93 U.S. attorneys is a red herring. Not only would firing all of them have been a political and logistical nightmare, but it would have been foolish from Rove's point of view. After all, the vast majority were apparently behaving exactly as he wanted -- as "loyal Bushies."

The key question, that the White House continues to duck: Did Rove approve of -- or perhps even conceive of -- the idea of firing select attorneys? And if so, on what grounds? The latest e-mails certainly indicate that he was involved very early on.

Right now, Washington is engaged in feverish speculation about whether Gonzales is in his last days, or even moments, as attorney general. But as I wrote in my Wednesday column, Gonzales is a diversion.

The mainstream media was slow to get hot on the trail of this story. As Paul McLeary writes for CJR Daily, the liberal blog Talking Points Memo's dogged coverage is what kept the story alive.

But now, the mainstream media is in danger of getting distracted by the White House razzle dazzle -- and, quite possibly, by the spectacle of Bush throwing Gonzales, one of his oldest friends, overboard.

Keep your eye on Karl Rove, people.

Looking for Clues

There's been speculation that U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias of New Mexico was fired because he didn't file corruption charges against New Mexico Democrats in time to help Republican candidates in the 2006 election.

There's been speculation that U.S. Attorney David McKay of Washington State was fired because he didn't file voter-fraud charges in the wake of the 2004 elections, after Republicans narrowly lost the gubernatorial election.

There's been speculation that U.S. Attorney Carol Lam of San Diego was fired because of her aggressive pursuit of corruption charges against two Republican congressmen.

Now Richard A. Serrano writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Still uncertain exactly why he was fired, former U.S. Atty. H.E. 'Bud' Cummins III wonders whether it had something to do with the probe he opened into alleged corruption by Republican officials in Missouri amid a Senate race there that was promising to be a nail-biter.

"Cummins, a federal prosecutor in Arkansas, was removed from his job along with seven other U.S. attorneys last year.

"In January 2006, he had begun looking into allegations that Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt had rewarded GOP supporters with lucrative contracts to run the state's driver's license offices. Cummins handled the case because U.S. attorneys in Missouri had recused themselves over potential conflicts of interest.

"But in June, Cummins said, he was told by the Justice Department that he would be fired at year's end to make room for Timothy Griffin -- an operative tied to White House political guru Karl Rove."

The Coverage

David Johnston and Eric Lipton write in the New York Times: "Karl Rove, the senior presidential adviser, inquired about firing United States attorneys in January 2005, e-mail messages released Thursday show. The request prompted a Justice Department aide to respond that Alberto R. Gonzales, soon to be confirmed as attorney general, favored replacing a group of 'underperforming' prosecutors.

"The e-mail messages, part of a larger collection that the Justice Department is preparing to turn over to Congressional investigators, indicate that Mr. Rove and Mr. Gonzales, then the White House counsel, had considered replacing prosecutors earlier than either has previously acknowledged. . . .

"The White House had said earlier this week that Harriet E. Miers, who succeeded Mr. Gonzales as White House counsel, initiated the idea in early 2005 of replacing all the prosecutors.

"Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said again Thursday that Ms. Miers had first proposed the dismissals, but Mr. Snow acknowledged in an interview that the e-mail shifted the time line earlier than the White House had previously said.

"'The e-mail does not directly contradict nor is it inconsistent with Karl's recollection that after the 2004 election, Harriet Miers raised a question of replacing all the U.S. attorneys and he believed it was not a good idea,' Mr. Snow said. 'That's his recollection.'"

Ron Hutcheson and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Democrats cited Rove's involvement as more evidence that the firings were intended to purge prosecutors who refused to let partisan politics influence criminal investigations."

Richard A. Serrano and Richard B. Schmitt write in the Los Angeles Times: "The e-mails also show that the Justice Department was willing to defer to Rove on the matter."

Sampson, in his e-mail, wrote that "'when push comes to shove,' home-state senators who supported their prosecutors likely would resist the firings. Nevertheless, Sampson said, 'if Karl thinks there would be political will to do it, so do I.'"

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune that the new e-mails now date the genesis of the firings back to "a time when the Bush White House, and Rove in particular, were talking about the president's reelection as marking a major conservative realignment in the country, presenting the administration with the opportunity to remake much of the government. The revelation that Rove may have known more about the plan is likely to further embolden Democrats who are demanding that he testify in congressional hearings."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes for the Associated Press: "E-mails released this week, including a set issued Thursday night by the Justice Department, appear to contradict the administration's assertion that Bush's staff had only limited involvement in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, which Democrats have suggested were a politically motivated purge.

"Each new piece in the rapidly unfolding saga of how the prosecutors came to be dismissed has made it more difficult for the White House to insulate itself from the controversy."

Talking Points Memo has a purge scandal timeline.

Rove Watch

Phillip Rawls writes for the Associated Press from Troy, Ala.: "White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove said Thursday the removal of seven U.S. attorneys was based entirely on policy and personnel matters at the Justice Department. . . .

"In an appearance Thursday morning at Troy University, Rove said the dismissals were no different than ones in the Clinton administration, and he questioned why the Bush administration's action is drawing 'super-heated rhetoric' while the dismissals during President Clinton's terms did not."

Here, on the Think Progress Web site, is video of Rove talking about the attorneys: "We're at the point where people want to play politics with it, and that's fine. I would simply ask that everyone who's playing politics with this be asked to comment about what they think of the removal of 123 U.S. attorneys during the previous administration and see if they have the same super-heated rhetoric then that they're having now."

But Frank James blogs for the Chicago Tribune that "Bush himself said [Wednesday] while still in Mexico that he himself was troubled by how his Justice Department dealt with the firings. . . .

"The president acknowledges that Republicans and Democrats alike are accusing Gonzales of misleading them and that he has a real problem on his hand. So what's happening, according to Bush, is a lot more than people playing politics.

"Now the president just needs to get that point across to his chief political strategist."

As for the "Clinton did it, too" position, Andrew Cohen writes for CBS News: "There is so much disinformation and misinformation floating around cyberspace these days about the firing of eight federal prosecutors that you would almost think people on one side of the debate and the other are writing about and analyzing two completely different stories. Over and over again, supporters of the White House, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, seem to want to compare the current controversy with, especially, the decision by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to dismiss all of the federal prosecutors who had served under his predecessor, George H. W. Bush.

"To compare these two episodes is to say that when a dog bites a man it is as newsworthy as when a man bites a dog."

And Joe Conason writes for Salon: "From the Drudge Report to the Fox News Channel to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the usual suspects are shrieking in unison:

"Bill Clinton fired a lot of U.S. attorneys too! In fact Clinton was worse because he fired all of them at once! And the Democrats didn't complain when Clinton did the same thing!

"If those wails are loud enough, hapless mainstream journalists tend to repeat the same bogus accusations. Phony analogies and bad history gush out in a toxic stream of informational sewage. Then somebody (sigh) debunks those claims, just like someone hoses down the street after a parade of circus elephants."

Editorial Watch

USA Today: "The case of the fired federal prosecutors keeps getting curiouser and curiouser, not to mention more odoriferous, with each passing day. . . .

"The cries for Gonzales' head, however, are premature and miss the point. The emerging evidence is that the plan was hatched and approved inside the White House. The Gonzales hubbub just diverts attention from the still murky White House role in these firings.

"Among the key unanswered questions:

"* Why were these eight fired? . . .

"* Whose idea was it? . . .

"* Was the administration trying to stop investigations of powerful Republicans?"

Washington Post: Bush "should ensure that lawmakers get the full story. That means allowing White House staff members to be interviewed if the Senate deems necessary."

The Boston Globe: "It is customary for newly elected presidents to replace large numbers of US attorneys, especially if the new president is from a different party. It is not customary for presidents to sweep out many of their own appointees to these positions in the middle of their administration.

"Attorney General Alberto Gonzales caved in to pressure from the White House for such a housecleaning in recent months. Then department officials led Congress to believe that the eight US attorneys in question were forced out for performance problems, not for what now appears to be the real reason in at least some cases -- that the prosecutors were not sufficiently partisan in election and political corruption cases. Gonzales has lost any credibility he had with Congress and the public as the nation's chief law enforcer. He should resign."

And the Baltimore Sun has gotten deeply cynical: "When Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales says he intends to stay in his job, that's a sign he probably won't. When President Bush says, 'I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales,' you have to assume his days are numbered.

"Six years into the Bush administration, this is the way you have to think sometimes. Pronouncements are strong contra-indicators. (There are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It's up to Saddam Hussein to choose war or peace.)"

On Voter Fraud

When Bush himself mentioned complaints about U.S. attorneys to Gonzales in a conversation in October 2006, the specific complaints were from Senate Republicans who accused certain prosecutors of being lax on "voter fraud."

I've been promising a disquisition on voter fraud for three days now. But the New York Times editorial board did a lot of my heavy lifting for me this morning:

"In its fumbling attempts to explain the purge of United States attorneys, the Bush administration has argued that the fired prosecutors were not aggressive enough about addressing voter fraud. It is a phony argument; there is no evidence that any of them ignored real instances of voter fraud. But more than that, it is a window on what may be a major reason for some of the firings.

"In partisan Republican circles, the pursuit of voter fraud is code for suppressing the votes of minorities and poor people. By resisting pressure to crack down on 'fraud,' the fired United States attorneys actually appear to have been standing up for the integrity of the election system. . . .

"There is no evidence of rampant voter fraud in this country. Rather, Republicans under Mr. Bush have used such allegations as an excuse to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning groups. . . .

"The claims of vote fraud used to promote these measures usually fall apart on close inspection. . . .

"[The charge that] United States attorneys were insufficiently aggressive about voter fraud, [is] a way of saying, without actually saying, that they would not use their offices to help Republicans win elections. It does not justify their firing; it makes their firing a graver offense."

David Bowermaster wrote in the Seattle Times on Tuesday about the suggestion that McKay, the former U.S. attorney in Washington State, might have been soft on voter fraud.

"'Had anyone at the Justice Department or the White House ordered me to pursue any matter criminally in the 2004 governor's election, I would have resigned,' McKay said. 'There was no evidence, and I am not going to drag innocent people in front of a grand jury.' . . .

"McKay insists that top prosecutors in his office and agents from the FBI conducted a 'very active' review of allegations of fraud during the election but filed no charges and did not convene a federal grand jury because 'we never found any evidence of criminal conduct.'

"McKay detailed the work of his office in a recent interview. He spoke out because he believed Republican supporters of Dino Rossi, still bitter over his narrow loss to Democrat Christine Gregoire, continue to falsely portray him and his office as indifferent to allegations of electoral fraud.

"McKay also wanted to make it clear that he pressed ahead with a preliminary investigation, despite the hesitation of Craig Donsanto, the longtime chief of the Election Crimes branch of the Department of Justice, who ultimately concurred with McKay that no federal crimes had been committed in the election."

And here's a bit of irony: Iglesias, the New Mexico prosecutor possibly fired for not filing charges in a Democratic corruption case in time for the 2006 election, actually came under fire in 2004 for investigating voter fraud too aggressively. As Jo Becker and Dan Eggen wrote in The Washington Post on September 20, 2004: "U.S. Attorney David Iglesias in New Mexico launched a statewide criminal task force to investigate allegations of voter fraud. . . .

"The probe is one of several criminal inquiries into alleged voter fraud launched in recent weeks in key presidential battlegrounds, including Ohio and West Virginia, as part of a broader initiative by U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft targeting bogus registrations and other election crimes. The Justice Department has asked U.S. attorneys across the country to meet with local elections officials and launch publicity campaigns aimed at getting people to report irregularities.

"The focus on registration problems comes amid a fiercely contested presidential race and at a time when many Democrats are still angry over the 2000 election, in which ballot irregularities in Florida prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the winner. And it puts the Justice Department in the middle of a charged and partisan debate over when aggressive fraud enforcement becomes intimidation."

Iglesias never filed any voter-fraud charges.

U.S. News has a timeline of the voter fraud allegations in New Mexico and Washington State.

Gonzales Watch

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "As attorney general and in his previous job as White House counsel, Gonzales has been at the center of virtually every controversy involving the administration's view of civil liberties in the war on terror, the use of torture on suspected terrorists and spying on Americans without warrants. That's left him vulnerable to attacks from both ends of the political spectrum.

"Struggling to save his job, Gonzales plans to talk privately with lawmakers on Friday to address some of their concerns."

But it appears to be an uphill battle.

From the Think Progress Web site, video of Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer telling reporters yesterday: "I know, from other sources, that there is an active and avid discussion in the White House whether [Gonzales] should stay or not."

U.S. News Political Bulletin reports: "The CBS Evening News led its broadcast last night saying, 'That ticking sound around Washington tonight may be the clock running out on . . . Gonzales.' The pressure on him 'is building,' and 'one Republican strategist close to the White House told CBS News Alberto Gonzales is 'finished.'"

After the latest e-mail release, Kelli Arena told Wolf Blitzer on CNN: "Now, Wolf, several Republicans that I spoke to earlier in the day said they feared if there was one more negative revelation, that Gonzales would be gone. We'll see."


I wrote at some length in yesterday's column about the unusual and questionable use of Republican National Committee e-mail accounts by White House staffers conducting official business.

Are they trying to avoid rules about the archiving of presidential records? That and many other questions remain unanswered.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) yesterday sent a letter to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, asking for an investigation.

A White House Watch reader also pointed me toward this Paul Bedard item from his Washington Whispers column in U.S. News item in January 2004: "Our recent Whisper about 20 million Clinton White House E-mails being made public next year shook up a few in the Bush administration. 'I don't want my E-mail made public,' said one insider. As a result, many aides have shifted to Internet E-mail instead of the White House system. 'It's Yahoo!, baby,' says a Bushie."

Plame Watch

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Valerie Plame, the CIA operative at the heart of a political scandal, told Congress Friday that senior officials at the White House and State Department 'carelessly and recklessly' blew her cover to discredit her diplomat-husband."

Here is a transcript of her opening statement: "I'm grateful for this opportunity to set the record straight. I served the United States loyally and to the best of my ability as a covert operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency."

Richard Leiby and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "People close to Plame say her primary goal in testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is to knock down persistent claims that she did not serve undercover. . . .

"Former CIA officers, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, provided a broad outline of Plame's career. They said she spent most of her time as one of the elite spies who travel overseas under 'non-official cover' and are known as NOCs within the agency. . . .

"In the CIA's eyes, the revelation of Plame's name in any context, whether she was stationed here or abroad, gave away a national security secret that could have dangerous repercussions."

So why all the confusion?

Leiby and Pincus explain: "Some news stories created initial confusion over Plame's status by suggesting that disclosure of her name and employment may have violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. That law, passed in response to disclosure of the names of CIA officers serving overseas by former CIA employee Philip Agee, made it a crime to disclose the names of 'covert agents,' which the act narrowly defined as those serving overseas or who had served as such in the previous five years.

"'Covert agent' is not a label actually used within the agency for its employees, according to former senior CIA officials."

Cheney and Mental Disorder

Charles Krauthammer, who is a psychiatrist as well as a columnist for The Washington Post, renders his professional opinion on Michelle Cottle's story (subscription required) in the New Republic.

"'What is wrong with Dick Cheney?' asks Michelle Cottle in the inaugural issue of the newly relaunched New Republic. She then spends the next 1,900 words marshaling evidence suggesting that his cardiac disease has left him demented and mentally disordered."

But Krauthammer concludes it is Cottle who is crazy: "If there's a diagnosis to be made here, it is this: yet another case of the one other syndrome I have been credited with identifying, a condition that addles the brain of otherwise normal journalists and can strike without warning -- Bush Derangement Syndrome, Cheney Variant."

Cover-Up Watch

The ACLU announces: "Following reports by the National Journal that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales advised President Bush to shut down an internal review of the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program due to the possibility that his own actions would be scrutinized, the American Civil Liberties Union today renewed its call for a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate the program."

In a letter to Gonzales, four Democratic senators ask: "When did you learn that you were a target of the OPR investigation? Did you inform President Bush that you were a target of the OPR investigation? Did you recommend that President Bush deny security clearances to the OPR investigators?"

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "The plainly illegal warrantless eavesdropping program is still, in my view, the area in which real investigations are most needed. And this obstructed OPR investigation is part of a clear, broader pattern whereby all such investigations into the NSA program have been blocked."

Protest Watch

Michael E. Ruane writes in The Washington Post: "Several thousand Christian peace activists plan to march on the White House tonight to demonstrate their opposition to the war in Iraq, organizers said yesterday. . . .

"The event is sponsored by the District-based Sojourners/Call to Renewal, a progressive religious group, along with the American Friends Service Committee, Lutheran Peace Fellowship, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and more than two dozen other Protestant and Catholic groups.

"Organizers have said that although most marchers will adhere to the permit regulations for the demonstration, several hundred 'volunteered' to stage actions of peaceful civil disobedience and face arrest."

Poll Watch

Jeffrey M. Jones reports for Gallup that the American public would not applaud the granting of a presidential pardon to convicted perjurer and former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby. The margin: 67 to 21 percent.

Time for a Press Conference?

The U.S. News Political Bulletin reports: "President Bush, no big fan of the prime-time press conference, is being urged by some aides and outside advisors to hold a full-scale nighttime press conference to help 'define himself' at a time when his administration is under fire on several fronts. 'There is discussion of holding a prime-time news conference where '43' can make remarks and get his licks in,' an advisor tells the US News Political Bulletin. The event would be designed around discussing the results of his trip to Latin America and the latest from Iraq. But it would give him a chance to 'frame the Department of Justice personnel issues and define himself and his administration,' said the official, who is aware of the in-house discussions. 'It's kind of a way to get in front of this ridiculous runaway train P.R. disaster. The sooner the better.' One insider suggested that a major press conference would not only give Bush a chance to discuss Iraq, the controversy over the fired prosecutors, and even his embattled No Child Left Behind Act, but give him a chance to spin the issues his way."

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