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New Signs Point to the White House

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 3, 2007; 1:08 PM

Yesterday brought considerably more evidence of direct White House involvement in the overt politicization of the Justice Department -- not only in terms of purging U.S. attorneys who may have been considered insufficiently partisan in their pursuit of criminal cases, but also in terms of filling career positions with attorneys who passed a political litmus test.

Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "The Justice Department has launched an internal investigation into whether Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's former White House liaison illegally took party affiliation into account in hiring career federal prosecutors, officials said yesterday.

"The allegations against Monica M. Goodling represent a potential violation of federal law and signal that a joint probe begun in March by the department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility has expanded beyond the controversial dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys last year."

Evan Perez and Jess Bravin write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Unlike U.S. attorneys, who are presidential political appointees, assistant U.S. attorneys are career employees not meant to be subject to political litmus tests in order to get or keep their jobs. Justice Department policy and federal law prohibit the department from considering political affiliation, among other factors, in deciding whether to hire or fire them."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times that the investigation "widens the probe into allegations of partisan hiring and firing at the agency and complicates the Bush administration's efforts to weather the scandal.

"Goodling has become a focus of congressional investigators because she played a central role in identifying eight U.S. attorneys who were fired last year. The latest disclosure that she also was involved in the hiring of assistant U.S. attorneys shed new light on her clout at the Justice Department and raised more questions about how the agency has operated under Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales."

But why was anyone at main Justice -- not to mention a young political operative with no prosecutorial experience -- involved in hiring career prosecutors in local U.S. attorney's offices? Therein lies a tale.

Eric Lipton and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "Normally, these lawyers are hired by United States attorneys. But when an interim United States attorney is in place, one who has not been confirmed by the Senate, he or she must seek the approval of officials at department headquarters, a rule that perhaps allowed Ms. Goodling to investigate the political backgrounds of the applicants."

But a statement from Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd (Web-published as a Word Document by the Chicago Tribune) doesn't in any way indicate there is any precedent for anyone in main Justice vetting individual hires: "By way of background, acting or interim U.S. Attorneys are limited in their authority to hire Assistant U.S. Attorneys and make other discretionary staff personnel changes," Boyd explained. "This policy exists because hiring decisions are usually made by the Senate confirmed and presidentially appointed U.S. Attorney. However, it is a longstanding DOJ practice to allow the interim or acting U.S. Attorneys to request that the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys (EOUSA) grant a waiver of this limitation due to turnover and workload demands during the nomination and confirmation process. EOUSA reviews the request for waivers to ensure that funding is sufficient to support the hires and also to ensure that upon confirmation, at a minimum, the incoming U.S. Attorney will have the ability to hire a First Assistant U.S. Attorney and a Secretary."

Why Goodling? Well, it makes complete sense in light of this Murray Waas story from the National Journal on Monday: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales signed a highly confidential order in March 2006 delegating to two of his top aides -- who have since resigned because of their central roles in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys -- extraordinary authority over the hiring and firing of most non-civil-service employees of the Justice Department. . . .

"In the order, Gonzales delegated to his then-chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, and his White House liaison 'the authority, with the approval of the Attorney General, to take final action in matters pertaining to the appointment, employment, pay, separation, and general administration' of virtually all non-civil-service employees of the Justice Department, including all of the department's political appointees who do not require Senate confirmation. . . .

"The existence of the order suggests that a broad effort was under way by the White House to place politically and ideologically loyal appointees throughout the Justice Department, not just at the U.S.-attorney level. Department records show that the personnel authority was delegated to the two aides at about the same time they were working with the White House in planning the firings of a dozen U.S. attorneys, eight of whom were, in fact, later dismissed."

And you have to ask: Is it just a coincidence that so many U.S. attorney offices (21 out of 93 at last reckoning, according to this list) lack Senate-confirmed leaders with independent hiring authority? Could the ability to centrally vet the hiring of career prosecutors outside main Justice have contributed to some degree to the administration's enthusiasm to fire Senate-confirmed U.S. attorneys -- as well as its decision to stealthily insert a provision into the Patriot Act allowing interim U.S. attorneys to serve indefinitely?

As for who Goodling might have turned to in order to determine the political affilliation of job candidates? One can only guess.

Legal analyst Andrew Cohen blogs for washingtonpost.com: "No one who has followed this story closely can be shocked by this news. Of course, the fix was in with the Goodling, Sampson and Co. to replace professional nonpartisan officials with partisans; of course White House leaders directed the plan, and of course the Attorney General either went along with it (as he always does with his president) or negligently allowed it to happen on his watch."

And here's an interesting side-note from the Perez and Bravin article: "In mid-March, The Wall Street Journal sought information from the Justice Department on Ms. Goodling's role in the selection of such prosecutors. The department turned down a request for expedited handling of the Journal's query, citing that it 'does not believe the specific topic of your request is the subject of widespread and exceptional media interest.'"

What the Fired Attorneys Heard

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday released statements from six of the fired U.S. attorneys, in which there are new indications of direct White House involvement.

Richard A. Serrano writes in the Los Angeles Times: "According to written statements released Wednesday -- her first public comments since testifying two months ago about her firing -- [former San Diego U.S. attorney Carol Lam] said she was given just weeks to clear out of her office and was informed by Justice Department officials that her ouster was 'coming from the very highest levels of the government.'"

After Lam was told she had been fired she pleaded with Michael Elston, the chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, for more time because of pending investigations and cases.

Serrano writes: "Her office was in the final preparations for grand jury indictments of defense contractor Brent R. Wilkes and Kyle Dustin 'Dusty' Foggo, a former top CIA official, on corruption charges arising out of the bribery conviction of former Rep. Randy 'Duke' Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe).

"Lam said Elston told her that her request for more time was 'not being received positively,' and 'he insisted that I had to depart in a matter of weeks, not months, and that these instructions were 'coming from the very highest level of the government.' "

Serrano writes, "several of the fired prosecutors said in the written statements that they could not get a truthful answer from [Michael A. Battle, then a Justice Department supervisor for U.S. attorneys,] when he called to tell them they were being terminated.

"David C. Iglesias, former U.S. attorney in Albuquerque, said he pressed Battle on why he was being removed, only to be told: 'I don't know and I don't want to know.'"

James Rowley writes for Bloomberg that former Nevada U.S. attorney Daniel Bogden wrote in his statement about the rationale for his firing that he got from William Mercer, acting associate attorney general.

"Mercer explained that 'the administration had a two-year window of opportunity' to give someone 'the experience of serving as United States attorney' so 'the Republican Party would have more future candidates to the federal bench' and political positions, Bogden wrote. . . .

"Bogden said that neither Mercer nor Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty offered any other explanation for his dismissal. McNulty told Bogden that the order for his dismissal came from 'higher up' and that his performance in office 'did not enter into the equation,' the fired U.S. attorney wrote."

On TPMMuckraker, Paul Kiel highlights a key section of the statement from Bud Cummins, who was forced out of his position as U.S. attorney in Little Rock to make way for Tim Griffin, a protege of White House political guru Karl Rove.

Gonzales and other officials have insisted they never intended to use the Patriot Act provision allowing them to circumvent Senate confirmation for U.S. attorneys. Cummins at one point called Elston to complain that there was no intention to put Griffin through the confirmation process.

Writes Cummins: "Elston rejected that notion and assured me that every replacement would have to be confirmed by the Senate. I told him if that was the case, then he had better gag Tim Griffin because Griffin was telling many people, including me, that officials in Washington had assured him he could stay in as USA pursuant to an interim appointment whether he was ever nominated or not. Elston denied knowing anything about anyone's intention to circumvent Senate confirmation in Griffin's case. He said that might have been the White House's plan, but they 'never read DOJ into that plan' and DOJ would never go along with it. This indicated to me that my removal had been dictated entirely by the White House. He said Griffin would be confirmed or have to resign. I remember that part of the conversation well because I then said to Elston that it looked to me that if Tim Griffin couldn't get confirmed and had to then resign, then I would have resigned for nothing, and to that, after a brief pause Elston replied, 'yes, that's right.'"

Subpoena Watch

In the meantime, as Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Senators subpoenaed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Wednesday, ordering him to provide all e-mails related to presidential adviser Karl Rove and the firings of eight federal prosecutors.

"'It is troubling that significant documents highly relevant to the committee's inquiry have not been produced,' Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote in a letter to Gonzales. The subpoena gives Gonzales until May 15 to turn over the information."

Kevin Johnson and Donna Leinwand write in USA Today: "The subpoena for the Rove communications represents an ongoing effort by Democrats and some Republicans in Congress to assess the White House's involvement in the firings.

"The Senate panel has sought to determine whether the administration specifically targeted the eight federal prosecutors for removal because of their decisions in politically charged criminal investigations.

"Rove's name has surfaced in some e-mails related to strategic discussions about how the administration should proceed in removing federal prosecutors. Gonzales also has acknowledged that Rove spoke to him about 'concerns that he had heard' about an alleged failure to pursue voter fraud in some districts."

Also yesterday, a bipartisan group of Judiciary Committee senators demanded that Gonzales turn over the internal order that Waas disclosed in the National Journal on Monday. Here's that letter.

Impeach Gonzales?

Law professor Frank Bowman writes in a New York Times op-ed: "If Alberto Gonzales will not resign, Congress should impeach him. Article II of the Constitution grants Congress the power to impeach 'the president, the vice president and all civil officers of the United States.' The phrase 'civil officers' includes the members of the cabinet (one of whom, Secretary of War William Belknap, was impeached in 1876). . . .

"Lying to Congress is a felony -- actually three felonies: perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice.

"A false claim not to remember is just as much a lie as a conscious misrepresentation of a fact one remembers well. Instances of phony forgetfulness seem to abound throughout Mr. Gonzales's testimony, but his claim to have no memory of the November Justice department meeting at which he authorized the attorney firings left even Republican stalwarts like Jeff Sessions of Alabama gaping in incredulity. The truth is almost surely that Mr. Gonzales's forgetfulness is feigned -- a calculated ploy to block legitimate Congressional inquiry into questionable decisions made by the Department of Justice, White House officials and, quite possibly, the president himself. . . .

"Congress should recognize that the issue here goes deeper than the misbehavior of one man. The real question is whether Republicans and Democrats are prepared to defend the constitutional authority of Congress against the implicit claim of an administration that it can do what it pleases and, when called to account, send an attorney general of the United States to Capitol Hill to commit amnesia on its behalf."

Iraq Watch

Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "President Bush and congressional leaders began negotiating a second war funding bill yesterday, with Democrats offering the first major concession: an agreement to drop their demand for a timeline to bring troops home from Iraq.

"Democrats backed off after the House failed, on a vote of 222 to 203, to override the president's veto of a $124 billion measure that would have required U.S. forces to begin withdrawing as early as July. But party leaders made it clear that the next bill will have to include language that influences war policy. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) outlined a second measure that would step up Iraqi accountability, 'transition' the U.S. military role and show 'a reasonable way to end this war.' . . .

"But a new dynamic also is at work, with some Republicans now saying that funding further military operations in Iraq with no strings attached does not make practical or political sense. Rep. Bob Inglis (S.C.), a conservative who opposed the first funding bill, said, 'The hallway talk is very different from the podium talk.'"

Weisman and Murray write: "Benchmarks have emerged as the most likely foundation for bipartisan consensus and were part of yesterday's White House meeting, participants said." But "White House officials . . . want them to be tied to rewards for achievement, not penalties for failure," while "liberal Democrats think that public opinion and circumstances in Iraq are on their side, and they view benchmarks alone as far too weak."

Here's is the text of Bush's remarks before meeting with congressional leaders yesterday afternoon: "Today is a day where we can work together to find common ground. I will inform the Speaker and the Leader of our serious intent, and to that end, I am going to name my Chief of Staff, Josh Bolten, along with Steve Hadley and Rob Portman to work with members of both parties to fund our troops."

Three Views of Bush's Speech

Here is the transcript of Bush's talk to a friendly group of builders yesterday.

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush is hardly the first president to go before a friendly crowd during a challenging period. But he has done so several times in the last few weeks, even as some onetime allies voice worry about the White House creating the impression that he is cloistered, hearing only supportive voices."

Rutenberg writes that Bush "did not leave Washington on Wednesday. But for at least two hours he was transported to a different world, away from inquiries involving the credibility of top aides and questions about the war in Iraq. The place was a hotel ballroom just a couple of blocks from the White House, where he took questions from supporters. It was not so much a grilling as a warming.

"'What do you pray about?' one man asked. 'And how we can we pray for you?' (Answer: 'Wisdom and strength, and my family, is what I'd like for you to pray for.')"

And so on.

Rutenberg notes that White House spokeswoman Dana Perino "chided reporters in attendance at the session on Wednesday for 'the rolling of the eyes and the smirking' during the questioning.

"'What I observed was the looks of disbelief on some of the reporters' faces -- and I've seen it before -- that anyone in the United States supports the president or has a different opinion from what is read in the newspapers,' Ms. Perino said. 'People who have that feeling need to be validated and respected as well.'"

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush is at odds with the American public and a restive congressional majority over the Iraq war, and even some Republicans talk about imposing new requirements that could trigger a troop withdrawal.

"It's time to play the Qaeda card.

"In a speech about Iraq yesterday morning at the Willard Hotel, the president mentioned Osama bin Laden's group -- 27 times. . . .

"Never mind all that talk about sectarian strife and civil war in Iraq. 'The primary reason for the high level of violence is this: Al-Qaeda has ratcheted up its campaign of high-profile attacks,' Bush disclosed."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg blogs for the New York Times on Bush's new moniker for himself: "The Commander Guy."

Bush on the Kids

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service: "President Bush today said the Americans fighting in Iraq are kids. And the people who flew airplanes into U.S. buildings on 9/11 also were kids.

"The comments came in remarks to the Associated General Contractors meeting in Washington.

"'And casualties are likely to stay high,' he said of the war. 'Yet, day by day, block by block, we are steadfast in helping Iraqi leaders counter the terrorists, protect their people, and reclaim the capital. And if I didn't think it was necessary for the security of the country, I wouldn't put our kids in harm's way.'

"Of the enemy he said, 'You can attack a nation several ways. One, you can get 19 kids to fly airplanes into buildings, or you can gain control of something a country needs and deny that country access to that, in this case, oil, and run the price of oil up, all attempting to inflict serious economic damage.'"

But the widespread use of National Guards, among other factors, means that the troops in harm's way in Iraq, for better or worse, are not just "kids".

For instance, according to washingtonpost.com's Faces of the Fallen database, the age distribution of U.S. servicemembers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan is as follows: 1,071 were between 18 and 22; 1,324 were between 23 and 29; and 949 were between 30 and 59.

Bush on the Internets

From his speech yesterday: "I talk to a lot of families who have got a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan, or anywhere else in this global war on terror, and they are in constant communication with their loved one. That's amazing, isn't it. You've got a kid in Iraq who is emailing mom daily, talking about the realities of what he or she sees. Information is moving -- you know, nightly news is one way, of course, but it's also moving through the blogosphere and through the Internets."

Bush on the Press

"And freedom of the press is a valuable freedom here, and it's just something that we've all got to live with and value it for what it is."

Iraq Analysis

Ron Hutcheson and Renee Schoof write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Anthony Cordesman, an influential Iraq expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he doubts that Congress-imposed benchmarks would make much difference there. In a paper released Wednesday, Cordesman argued that Congress and the Bush administration have failed to come to grips with Iraq's problems and offer a credible plan.

"The administration has overstated progress in Iraq and hyped the risks of setting a timeline for withdrawal, Cordesman wrote. He said a rushed U.S. withdrawal would lead to violent power struggles, but not genocide. He said that the administration's argument that Iraq would become a sanctuary for al-Qaida ignores key points: strong and growing resistance to al-Qaida by Iraqi Sunnis, and opposition to al-Qaida from Iraq's other main groups, the Shiites and Kurds.

"In addition, withdrawal would pose no major increase in the threat al-Qaida poses to America, Cordesman wrote, noting that al-Qaida already operates from several countries.

"Cordesman also gave the Democratic-led Congress low marks. Its benchmarks and timelines are unrealistic, given Iraq's many problems, he said. Iraq has no strong central government or rule of law, so Iraqi factions will need time to work out compromises."

Benchmark Watch

Edward Wong and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in the New York Times: "Kurdish and Sunni Arab officials expressed deep reservations on Wednesday about the draft version of a national oil law and related legislation, misgivings that could derail one of the benchmark measures of progress in Iraq laid down by President Bush.

"The draft law, which establishes a framework for the distribution of oil revenues, was approved by the Iraqi cabinet in late February after months of negotiations. The White House was hoping for quick passage to lay the groundwork for a political settlement among the country's ethnic and sectarian factions. But the new Kurdish concerns have created doubts about the bill even before Parliament is to pick it up for debate."

Joshua Partlow, writing in The Washington Post, takes a somewhat less pessimistic view.

The Veto Pen

Peter Slevin writes in The Washington Post that the pen Bush in his veto on Tuesday was the one that Bob Derga used to write letters to his son, Cpl. Dustin A. Derga, a Marine reservist who was killed in Iraq in May 2005.

Derga and his wife were in the audience for a speech Bush gave at the White House on April 16.

"After Bush spoke to the cameras and a supportive audience, an aide led the way for the Dergas and about half a dozen other families connected with Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission. . . .

"Derga said Bush spoke to the group, then with each family in turn. 'He talked a little bit about how he didn't come to Washington to win popularity polls,' said Derga, an engineer with Diebold Inc. 'He's very firmly behind his beliefs and convictions, and he believes the test of time will prove him correct. He even said whether he lives to see that or not is immaterial. He can leave the White House knowing he did what was right.'

"During their private meeting, Derga made his plea.

"'I handed him the pen and looked him in the eye and I said, "Mr. President, if this comes down to a veto, I want you to sign it with my pen." He said, "Yeah, I'll do it." When we left, he was shaking everybody's hand. I said, "I'm serious. I want you to do it." He said, "I will. I will." '"


We've added a clarification to my April 23 column regarding a New York Times account of the White House Correspondent's Dinner.

Snow's Return

In a washingtonpost.com video, Dana Milbank wonders why press secretary Tony Snow would want to return to his job after cancer surgery, and comes up with at least one reason: "Even though things are not necessarily going very well in the world for the administration right now, the press corps is not about to make Tony Snow's life very miserable on the podium."

It's a Movement!

Stephen Koff blogs for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Two U.S. House Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors to Dennis Kucinich's resolution seeking to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. They are William Lacy Clay, from St. Louis, and Jan Schakowsky, of Chicago."


Time magazine is out with its list of the 100 men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.

Osama bin Laden, Queen Elizabeth, Tina Fey and Justin Timberlake are on the list. Bush isn't.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on waiting for a stable government; Ann Telnaes on the real prescription for chaos and confusion; and Mike Luckovich on presidential powers.

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