By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales took responsibility yesterday for "mistakes" related to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year but rejected calls for his resignation from Democrats who accuse him of misleading Congress.
"I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility," Gonzales said. He said he did not know the details of the plan to fire the prosecutors, but he defended the dismissals: "I stand by the decision, and I think it was a right decision."
The remarks came after the Justice Department released e-mails and other documents showing that, despite months of administration statements to the contrary, the White House more than two years ago initiated the process that led to the dismissals, and that the decisions were heavily influenced by assessments of the prosecutors' political loyalty. President Bush and senior White House adviser Karl Rove also separately passed along complaints to Gonzales that prosecutors were not aggressively pursuing voter-fraud cases, officials said.
The revelations prompted another outcry on Capitol Hill over the firings and new demands for Gonzales's resignation from key Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.). "It appears he's over his head in this job," Reid said.
Even Republicans who have supported the ousters sharply criticized the attorney general.
But Gonzales said he is "here not because I give up," and White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush has "all the confidence in the world" in Gonzales, who has served Bush for more than 12 years in Texas and Washington.
Democrats also renewed calls for testimony from Rove and Harriet E. Miers, the former White House counsel who first suggested in February 2005 that all 93 U.S. attorneys be removed and whose office was provided with evolving lists of at least a dozen prosecutors targeted for ouster. The White House signaled that it would resist the demands.
E-mails released yesterday show that White House deputy political director J. Scott Jennings communicated with Justice officials about the appointment of Tim Griffin, a former Rove aide, to be the U.S. attorney in Little Rock. Jennings used an e-mail account registered to the Republican National Committee, where Griffin had worked as an opposition researcher.
Democratic congressional aides said they will investigate whether using the private address for government business violated laws against using taxpayer resources for political work or signaled that White House officials considered the firing of U.S. attorneys to be primarily a political issue. Jennings did not return a call to his office seeking a comment.
"As a matter of course, the RNC provides server space and equipment to certain White House personnel in order to assist them with their political efforts," RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said.
Seven U.S. attorneys were fired on Dec. 7, and another was let go months earlier, with little explanation from Justice Department officials, who later told Congress that the dismissals were related to their performance in office. 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.
Although Bush and President Bill Clinton each dismissed nearly all U.S. attorneys upon taking office, legal experts and former prosecutors say the firing of a large number of prosecutors in the middle of a term appears to be unprecedented and threatens the independence of prosecutors.
In defending themselves yesterday, Gonzales and the White House implicitly laid much of the blame for miscommunication with Congress on D. Kyle Sampson, who resigned Monday as Gonzales's chief of staff as the result of not telling other Justice officials about his extensive communications with the White House about the dismissals.
Gonzales, likening himself to a chief executive who delegates responsibility to others, said he knew few details about how Sampson was orchestrating the prosecutors' removal.
"I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on," he said. "That's basically what I knew as the attorney general."
Gonzales said he accepted Sampson's resignation because, by withholding information from other Justice officials, he led them to provide "incomplete information" in testimony to Congress. Gonzales did not comment on his own testimony in January, when he assured senators that he would never fire a U.S. attorney for political reasons.
The administration, which has offered varying explanations for the dismissals over the past three months, also returned to arguments yesterday that the U.S. attorneys were dismissed for performance-related reasons and that the removals were well within presidential prerogatives. Bartlett said it is "highly unlikely" that the administration would allow Rove or Miers to testify before Congress.
The Justice e-mails and internal documents, which were first reported yesterday by The Washington Post, show that political loyalty and positions on signature GOP policy issues loomed large in weighing whether a prosecutor should be dismissed. One e-mail from Sampson, for example, notes that the appointment of Griffin in Little Rock "was important to Harriet, Karl, etc."
The documents also illustrate that after nearly two years of debate, the dismissal of the seven prosecutors in December was carried out under a plan by Sampson that provided step-by-step guidance on how the prosecutors would be fired, who would be notified and how to deal with criticism. One section of the plan was titled "Preparing for Political Upheaval."
"I am concerned that to execute this plan properly we must all be on the same page and be steeled to withstand any political upheaval that might result," Sampson wrote to Miers and her deputy, William Kelley, on Nov. 15.
In an earlier e-mail, Sampson asked another Justice official whether then-U.S. Attorney Carol S. Lam of San Diego had been admonished for not prosecuting more immigration cases.
Has the deputy attorney general's office "ever called Carol Lam and woodshedded her re immigration enforcement? Has anyone?" Sampson wrote.
The e-mails indicate that then-U.S. attorney David C. Iglesias of New Mexico was added to the firing list in October, about the same time he says he received telephone calls from Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.). Iglesias alleges they pressured him to speed up a corruption investigation of state Democrats before the November elections.
The firings did not prevent Iglesias from asking Sampson in early January if Gonzales would put in a good word for him with prospective employers.
"David, I am well thank you," Sampson replied by e-mail on Jan. 10. "You can list the AG as a reference -- not a problem. Good luck!"
On Capitol Hill, a few additional Democrats called for Gonzales to resign, while lawmakers from both parties lined up to castigate the attorney general for his handling of the firings and for a separate revelation last week that the FBI had abused its power to seize personal records of Americans. Senate Republicans also began negotiating with Democrats over legislation to strip Gonzales of his right to avoid Senate oversight by appointing interim prosecutors indefinitely.
Many administration defenders had harsh words for the Justice Department. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) called the department "dysfunctional," while Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said "the appearances are troubling" and criticized Gonzales's handling of the issue.
"Everybody who's appointed by the White House understands that they serve at the pleasure of the president," said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), whose home-state prosecutor was among those fired. He added that "a good leader does not just dismiss somebody for no good reason, especially if you haven't done your job in the first place. And I don't feel that the U.S. attorney general's office did their job in the first place."
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) last week led the defense of the administration and criticized Lam. But yesterday he said on PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" that "if someone led us astray, they should resign, and I don't care how high it is, anyone involved with this coverup of giving us the truth needs to step down. . . . I am including anybody who would mislead, deliberately mislead the Congress. . . . If it's the attorney general who had a hand in it, then he has to step down."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the first Democrat to call for Gonzales to resign, said the latest revelations show a "breach of trust." He said Sampson's departure increased the pressure on Gonzales to do the same.
"In fact, it raises the temperature. Kyle Sampson will not become the next Scooter Libby, the fall guy," Schumer said, referring to the former vice presidential aide recently convicted of perjury.
Staff writers John Solomon and Peter Baker and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.