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What Monica Doesn't Know

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 23, 2007; 1:04 PM

Former Justice Department White House liaison Monica Goodling this morning told the House Judiciary Committee . . . very little.

Her testimony -- hugely anticipated after she refused to say a word without being granted immunity -- failed to resolve the central mystery of last year's firings of U.S. attorneys: Who wanted them fired them and why? And how extensive was the White House involvement?

Goodling described herself as a bit player who couldn't say how anyone showed up on the list.

"I wish to clarify my role as White House liaison," Goodling said in her opening statement "Despite that title, I did not hold the keys to the kingdom, as some have suggested. I was not the primary White House contact for purposes of the development or approval of the U.S. attorney replacement plan. . . . To the best of my recollection, I've never had a conversation with Karl Rove or Harriet Miers while I served at the Department of Justice, and I'm certain that I never spoke to either of them about the hiring or firing of any U.S. attorney."

Goodling did say she crossed the line in applying political litmus tests to career hires: "I do acknowledge that I may have gone too far in asking political questions of applicants for career positions and I may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions, and I regret those mistakes," she said, later adding: "I believe I crossed the line, but I didn't mean to."

But the only smoking gun, as it were, was the knife Goodling left in Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty's back. (It was the second in just over a week, what with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales trying to blame McNulty for the whole mess last Tuesday, a day after McNulty announced his resignation.)

Goodling, who had briefed McNulty prior to his Feb. 6 Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, charged that he was "not fully candid" with the senators "about his knowledge of White House involvement in the replacement decision [and] failed to disclose that he had some knowledge of the White House's interest in selecting Tim Griffin as the interim U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Arkansas."

Goodling said that McNulty knew that "the White House was involved in the sign-off of the plan at the end . . . and that he at least knew that that was a process that had been going on for some period of months."

Goodling also said McNulty told her not to attend a Feb. 14 briefing with senators because "if someone recognized me as the White House liaison, the members would be more likely to ask questions about the White House."

Nothing Goodling said (at least before noon, and my deadline) spoke to the concern that at least some of the prosecutors were fired because White House officials, including Karl Rove, didn't feel they were being sufficiently partisan in the exercise of their offices.

There was one tidbit, however, related to Griffin, a former aide to Karl Rove: "In 2005," Goodling said, "I had a social call at some point with Tim Griffin, who indicated to me, and he was working at the White House at the time, that he may have the opportunity to go back to Arkansas because some U.S. attorneys may be replaced, and if [Bud] Cummins was one of them, he might get a chance to go home."

How could Griffin possibly have known that? And yet, in the summer of 2006, Cummins, the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, was told to resign and Griffin was given his job.

The Previews

Richard B. Schmitt profiles Goodling in this morning's Los Angeles Times: "How a 33-year-old graduate of a little-known law school that teaches courses on the philosophy of punishing and controlling 'sin' became such a powerful figure in the Justice Department is a key question for congressional investigators looking into charges that the department has been turned into a political tool of the Republican Party.

"Goodling, who resigned in April, has come to symbolize what critics see as the triumph of politics over principle at the Justice Department under Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. Along with D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' former chief of staff, Goodling was one of the gatekeepers in identifying the eight U.S. attorneys who were dismissed last year. Democrats, and some of the fired prosecutors, say they suspect the terminations were politically motivated to help Republican office-seekers.

"The Justice Department inspector general is also investigating whether Goodling abused the authority she was given by Gonzales to hire career prosecutors. The watchdog is investigating, among other things, allegations that Goodling used a political litmus test in considering job applicants -- a violation of department rules and federal law. . . .

"Her long-awaited testimony could shed light on the motives behind the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys, including the involvement of the White House and political strategist Karl Rove. She could also deal another blow to Gonzales, whose tenure has been threatened by the scandal."

Dan Eggen and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Goodling was among a small coterie of young aides to Gonzales who were remarkable for their inexperience and autonomy in deciding the fates of seasoned Justice Department lawyers, according to current and former officials who worked with the group."

Karen Tumulty blogs for Time about the excerpts of private testimony released yesterday. In them, "Gonzales's former Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson told investigators that Gonzales himself initially resisted the idea of bypassing the Senators from Arkansas to install Karl Rove protege Tim Griffin as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Pressure to do it, he suggested, was coming from officials at the White House -- specifically, White House political director Sara Taylor, her deputy Scott Jennings and Chris Oprison, the associate White House counsel. Sampson described himself and Goodling as 'open to the idea,' which is not the same as instigating it."

Iglesias Writes

David C. Iglesias one of the fired prosecutors, writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "What happens in a presidential administration when loyalty, to borrow a phrase from 'Star Trek,' becomes the 'prime directive'? What happens when its all-encompassing fog obscures all other values -- such as fealty to the Constitution, the rule of law or simple humanity?

"What happens is that terrible decisions are made, repeated and then justified by this shibboleth. That's just one of the lessons that has emerged from the U.S. attorney scandal. . . .

"What has become clear already is that the 'loyalty uber alles' mentality has infected a wide swath of the Bush administration. Simple notions like right and wrong are, in their eyes, matters of allegiance, not conscience."

As for Goodling: "Now, her immunity deal secured, she needs to seek redemption by clearly testifying about how my colleagues and I came to be placed on the to-fire list. It will demand moral courage, but she must name the political operatives regardless of where they sit in the West Wing of the White House."

And as for Gonzales: He's "just another morally rudderless political operative," who should "'cowboy up,' as we say in New Mexico -- that is, find the courage to do the right thing."

Comey Watch

Ruth Marcus writes in her Washington Post opinion column that David S. Addington, then counsel and now chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, eventually had his revenge against those who stood up to the "executive-power zealots" in the great John Ashcroft hospital room showdown. (See my May 16 column.)

"Former deputy attorney general James Comey referred to Addington's revenge in his Senate testimony last week by mentioning 'one particular senior staffer of mine . . . had been blocked from promotion, I believed, as a result of this particular matter . . . That was Mr. Philbin.'"

Patrick Philbin, Marcus explains, is "out of government now. So, too, aside from FBI Director Robert Mueller, are the rest of those who stood up to the administration.

"Addington and Gonzales remain. That should chill anyone who believes in the rule of law, not rule by presidential fiat."

A New Specter of Criminality?

Scot J. Paltrow writes in the Wall Street Journal: "A former top aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove told Congress she will invoke her right against self-incrimination unless granted immunity to answer investigators' questions about lobbyist Jack Abramoff's contacts with administration officials.

"It is the first indication that Abramoff-related probes, mainly limited until now to his dealings with lawmakers and federal agency officials, may be advancing into the White House. The former Rove aide, Susan Ralston, previously had served as a top aide to Mr. Abramoff."

Charles Babington writes for the Associated Press: "In a sign that Congress' probe into the Abramoff matter is widening, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform also signaled plans to seek further documents and information about the former lobbyist's contacts with the Bush White House from 'former and current White House and Administration officials who may have knowledge' about such communications.

"In a memo to fellow committee members Tuesday, Chairman Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., said lawyers for the panel deposed Ralston, Rove's former aide, on May 10. Ralston resigned her White House post in October following the committee's finding that she had extensive contacts with Abramoff and had accepted tickets to sporting events and concerts from him."

Waxman's memo is worth a read. As Waxman notes: "In September 2006, Chairman Davis and Ranking Member Waxman released a staff report summarizing what the Committee had learned from a review of billing records and e-mails provided to the Committee by Mr. Abramoff's former lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig. According to these billing records and e-mails, Mr. Abramoff and his associates had 485 lobbying contacts with White House officials between January 2001 and March 2004. These lobbying contacts included over 150 meetings over meals or drinks that the Abramoff team billed to clients. The e-mails also described 19 events to which Mr. Abramoff or his associates offered tickets to White House officials, including Wizards and Capitals games andU2 and Bruce Springsteen concerts.

"One subject considered in the September report was whether there was evidence that the lobbying contacts, meals, and tickets described in the billing records and e-mails influenced official White House action. The e-mails and billing records described some instances in which White House officials took actions sought by Mr. Abramoff, and they described other instances in which Mr. Abramoff did not obtain the results he was seeking.

"The September report left important questions unanswered. Because the report relied solely on documents provided by Mr. Abramoff s firm, the documents told only one side of the story."

The Waxman memo quotes Ralston's attorney, former assistant White House counsel Brad Berenson, as saying at the deposition: "The subjects this morning that she will be unable to testify to on those grounds are the subjects of the relationship between Jack Abramoff and his associates and White House officials, including Ms. Ralston, and the subject of the use by White House officials of political e-mail accounts at the RNC."

(Remember those RNC e-mails? See my April 10 column if they've slipped your mind.)

Berenson continued: "She has material, useful information about both of those subjects. She is more than willing to provide it to the committee. However, she will, as we have previously discussed, require a grant of immunity before she is comfortable going forward."

Domestic Spying Watch

Margaret Talev writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee accused Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday of 'consistent stonewalling and misdirection' about the administration's warrantless wiretapping program and set a June 5 deadline for him to turn over long-sought documents about it.

"Until they get those documents discussing the legal justifications for the program, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told Gonzales in a scathing letter, they're prepared to block legislation that the White House says is needed to modernize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes the program."

Here's the letter from the Judiciary Committee leaders: "Last week we heard dramatic and deeply troubling testimony from former Deputy Attorney General Comey. He testified that in March 2004, when he was Acting Attorney General, he informed the White House that the Department of Justice had concluded an ongoing classified surveillance program had 'no legal basis' and would not certify it. He then described how you, then Counsel to the President, and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card arrived at the hospital bedside of an extremely ill Attorney General Ashcroft and attempted to persuade him to certify the program. When you failed, because Mr. Ashcroft refused, Mr. Comey testified that the program was nonetheless certified over the objections of the Department of Justice. That apparently prompted a number of high-ranking Justice officials to consider resigning en masse.

"This incident obviously raises very serious questions about your personal behavior and commitment to the rule of law. Mr. Comey's testimony also demonstrates vividly how essential it is that this Committee understands the legal underpinnings of the surveillance program that was the subject of that incident, and how the legal justification evolved over time. The stonewalling by you and the Administration must end. The Committee on the Judiciary is charged with overseeing and legislating on constitutional protections, civil and criminal justice, civil liberties, and the Judiciary, all subjects that this matter impacts. We intend to do our job. . . .

"Your consistent stonewalling and misdirection have prevented this Committee from carrying out its constitutional oversight and legislative duties for far too long."

And the letter also allows for the possibility that the program Comey resisted was not, in fact, the warrantless wiretapping program thus far made public. (See my May 17 column.)

"If you do not consider the surveillance program that was the subject of discussion during the hospital visit and other events that former Deputy Attorney General James Comey described in his May 15, 2007 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee to be covered by the requests made above, please provide all documents described in those requests relevant to that program, as well."

Bartlett Speaks

White House counselor Dan Bartlett yesterday answered, to some degree, the question I raised in yesterday's column: Has Bush Given Up on Immigration?

Bartlett says no -- it's just that Bush may not be willing to go to the mat on the issue just yet.

Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza write for washingtonpost.com: "Bartlett, in an interview for washingtonpost.com's PostTalk program, said the president's commitment to persuade members of his own party to support the bill is contingent on the ability of Democratic leaders to do their part to keep the bipartisan agreement intact."

Bartlett also spoke passionately about Gonzales. Balz and Cillizza write: "He charged that Democrats have sought to build a case against Gonzales through leaked documents, 'innuendo and allegations that have not been proven true,' and said the divide between Democrats and the White House appears irreconcilable.

"'Quite frankly I don't know who they [Democrats] would be satisfied with,' he said. . . .

"During the interview, Bartlett brushed aside questions about the late-night visit by then White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and Gonzales, then White House counsel, to the hospital room of former attorney general John Ashcroft. . . .

"He declined to say who had authorized the visit but insisted that Congress had been fully briefed on all aspects of that program and implied that those briefings included a full description of any changes that may have resulted from the dispute between Justice and the White House. . . .

"Bartlett also said there is no contradiction between Comey's testimony and earlier testimony by Gonzales that there were never any serious disagreements inside the administration over the program, but his explanation was far from clear."

Here are video clips of Bartlett talking about immigration, Gonzales, Iraq and the 2008 campaign.

Declassification Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Seeking to rally support for the war, President Bush is pointing to U.S. intelligence asserting that Osama bin Laden ordered a top lieutenant in early 2005 to form a terrorist unit to hit targets outside Iraq, and that the United States should be first in his sights. . . .

"The bulletin, which warned that bin Laden had enlisted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his senior operative in Iraq, to plan potential strikes in the United States, was described at the time as credible but not specific. It did not prompt the administration to raise its national terror alert level. . . .

"The Bush White House in the past has declassified and made public sensitive intelligence information to help rebut critics or defend programs or decisions against possibly adverse decisions in the Congress or the courts. On a few occasions, the declassified materials were intended to be proof that terrorists see Iraq as a critical staging ground for global operations.

"Democrats and other critics have accused Bush of selectively declassifying intelligence, including portions of a sensitive National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, to justify the U.S.-led invasion on grounds Saddam Hussein's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. That assertion proved false."

Karen Travers blogs for ABC News: "A White House official told ABC News Tuesday evening that the President is often asked how the administration can say that Al Qaeda wants to use Iraq as a base to launch attacks. This official said the administration points to Al Qaeda's public statements but this intelligence will explain further why the President says that was Al Qaeda's intention in Iraq. The President often says if the U.S. does not defeat the terrorists in Iraq, they will come to the United States -- he will make this point tomorrow and show how this intelligence supports that statement."

And then there's this from today's gaggle on Air Force One with homeland security adviser Fran Townsend:

"Q Well, I mean, the President has often boasted about interfering with Osama bin Laden's ability to communicate. Why was he able to do so to the extent that the President is outlining today in ordering these plots, communicating with these people?

"MS. TOWNSEND: There's no question that we've made it much more difficult for bin Laden today to communicate with his allies and partners around the world, including in Iraq. It doesn't mean he can't do it at all, we've just made it more difficult. And by making it more difficult, we have more opportunities to successfully intercept them, like what you're hearing today.

"Thank you.

"Q What's -- what do you think his status is?

"MS. TOWNSEND: I'm not going to speculate. I don't imagine he's very comfortable, though."

The Democrats Blink

The only Iraq timetable that remains remotely operative at this point is that some Republicans are promising a moment of reckoning in September. (See my May 8 column.)

Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "Democrats gave up their demand for troop-withdrawal deadlines in an Iraq war spending package yesterday, abandoning their top goal of bringing U.S. troops home and handing President Bush a victory in a debate that has roiled Congress for months. . . .

"The spending package, expected to total $120 billion when the final version is released today, would require Bush to surrender virtually none of his war authority. Democrats were working to secure two other priorities that the president had previously resisted: an increase in the minimum wage and funding for domestic programs, including veterans' benefits, Hurricane Katrina relief and agricultural aid.

"Instead of sticking with troop-withdrawal dates, Democrats accepted a GOP plan to establish 18 political and legislative benchmarks for the Iraqi government, with periodic reports from Bush on its progress, starting in late July. If the Iraqis fall short, they could forfeit U.S. reconstruction aid."

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "The compromise legislation is far from a total victory for the president. It requires that the Iraqi government show progress on improving security and forging political unity. Mr. Bush has resisted Congressional intervention in the conduct of the war, and the benchmarks and new reporting requirements, which had strong Republican support in the Senate, represent new accountability in the eyes of many lawmakers. . . .

"While Democrats were bruised by the veto fight and their decision to back away from the showdown, they believe they are slowly gaining ground. 'I view this as the beginning of the end of the president's policy on Iraq,' said Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus."

Bush's Secret Iran Order

Brian Ross and Richard Esposito report for ABC News: "The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert 'black' operation to destabilize the Iranian government, current and former officials in the intelligence community tell the Blotter on ABCNews.com.

"The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject, say President Bush has signed a 'nonlethal presidential finding' that puts into motion a CIA plan that reportedly includes a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions. . . .

"Current and former intelligence officials say the approval of the covert action means the Bush administration, for the time being, has decided not to pursue a military option against Iran."

Lanny Davis Speaks

I'm not sure what's more amazing about Michael Isikoff's interview of Lanny Davis for Newsweek: What Davis divulges about life as a member of the White House Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board-- or why Davis stayed as long as he did.

Says Davis: "I don't believe this board can serve any effective oversight purpose in the current structure, given the White House's culture. . . . The culture is pervasive and it's a culture of control, management, and everybody has to stay on the same page. There are some times (from my Clinton White House days) that I am very envious of that culture and the discipline, until recently, they were able to impose inside the White House. There are some very good people on the board. . . . But under the current culture and current structure I don't believe they can provide effective oversight unless Congress changes the structure and places this body as an entity outside the White House."

Things Are Looking Up!

It's the new White House talking point. Kenneth T. Walsh writes for U.S. News: "Relieved White House officials say President Bush has finally broken the cycle of bad news and political setbacks he has endured for months.

"The officials say the bipartisan agreement on immigration, backed by Bush and now being considered by the Senate, did the trick. And even though that deal is fragile and under attack from the left and the right, the fact that key Senate leaders of both parties approved it, including Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican John Kyl of Arizona, is seen as a sign that times will get better for Bush as he pursues his second-term agenda."

Ron Elving writes for NPR that "even at this low ebb of power and energy, the administration suddenly has a chance at rebirth. By subsuming the forces driving immigration with the traditional concerns that resist it, this president and this Congress could go far toward ensuring economic growth and social vitality for a generation to come. For his part, George W. Bush could finally prove himself the uniter he promised to be as a candidate seven years ago.

"Such a turnaround would not redeem all the losses and reversals that have beset the Bush team in the past two years. It would not undo the mistakes and miscalculations. It would not solve Iraq. But such a turnaround could lift the mood of futility that has crept over this regime. It would create the prospect of a new narrative, a thematic counterpoint."

Bush Doesn't Wear a Seatbelt?

Tara Woodside reports for ABC News: "President George W. Bush was caught on tape Sunday driving his pick-up truck in Crawford, Texas without a seatbelt."

Even worse: It's National Seatbelt Week.

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "In his morning briefing with reporters, White House press secretary Tony Snow was asked whether Bush wears his safety belt while riding in his armored limousine.

"'Does he wear a seat belt in the limo?' Snow said in some disbelief. 'I don't know.' . . .

"Citing security reasons, Snow wouldn't comment on whether the Secret Service requires Bush to wear a seat belt."

Cheney Talks

Here's the transcript of Cheney's interview yesterday with Thomas Dewell of the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News and Guide. (Cheney has a vacation home there.)

Cheney described his job: "As the Vice President, I don't run anything, like I did when I was at the Defense Department, for example. I had 4 million working for me. Now it's much more a matter of being a counselor and advisor, troubleshooter, somebody who can take on special assignments and so forth."

And he credited Watergate for making him who he is today: "You know, in one sense, my career was advanced by Watergate, because the Nixon administration left, President Nixon resigned, Gerry Ford became President and made me, first of all, deputy chief of staff, and then his chief of staff not long after I was -- you can't count on, you have to take advantage of the opportunities."

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Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on political theater; Jim Borgman on the burden of war; Walt Handelsman and Mike Luckovich on Bush v. Carter.

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