Firings Had Genesis in White House
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
The White House suggested two years ago that the Justice Department fire all 93 U.S. attorneys, a proposal that eventually resulted in the dismissals of eight prosecutors last year, according to e-mails and internal documents that the administration will provide to Congress today.
The dismissals took place after President Bush told Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in October that he had received complaints that some prosecutors had not energetically pursued voter-fraud investigations, according to a White House spokeswoman.
Gonzales approved the idea of firing a smaller group of U.S. attorneys shortly after taking office in February 2005. The aide in charge of the dismissals -- his chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson -- resigned yesterday, officials said, after acknowledging that he did not tell key Justice officials about the extent of his communications with the White House, leading them to provide incomplete information to Congress.
Lawmakers requested the documents as part of an investigation into whether the firings were politically motivated. While it is unclear whether the documents, which were reviewed yesterday by The Washington Post, will answer Congress's questions, they show that the White House and other administration officials were more closely involved in the dismissals, and at a much earlier date, than they have previously acknowledged.
Seven U.S. attorneys were fired on Dec. 7 and another was fired months earlier, with little explanation from the Justice Department. Several former prosecutors have since alleged intimidation, including improper telephone calls from GOP lawmakers or their aides, and have alleged threats of retaliation by a Justice Department official.
Administration officials have portrayed the firings as a routine personnel matter, designed primarily to rid the department of a handful of poor performers.
But the documents and interviews indicate that the idea for the firings originated at least two years ago, when then-White House counsel Harriet E. Miers suggested to Sampson in February 2005 that all prosecutors be dismissed and replaced.
Gonzales rejected that idea as impractical and disruptive, Justice officials said, but over the next 22 months Sampson orchestrated more limited dismissals.
"I recommend that the Department of Justice and the Office of the Counsel to the President work together to seek the replacement of a limited number of U.S. Attorneys," Sampson wrote to Miers in January 2006. A "limited number of U.S. attorneys could be targeted for removal and replacement, mitigating the shock to the system that would result from an across the board firing."
Administration officials say they are braced for a new round of criticism today from lawmakers who may feel misled by recent testimony from Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and William E. Moschella, principal associate deputy attorney general. Several Democrats have called in recent days for Gonzales to resign.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that "it doesn't appear the president was told about a list nor shown a list" of U.S. attorneys at any point in the discussions. She said White House political adviser Karl Rove had an early conversation with Miers about the idea of firing all chief prosecutors and did not think it was wise.
Bush mentioned complaints about voter-fraud investigations to Gonzales in a conversation in October 2006, Perino said. Gonzales does not recall the conversation, Justice Department officials said.