By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 16, 2007
The Justice Department advocated in early 2005 removing up to 20 percent of the nation's U.S. attorneys whom it considered to be "underperforming" but retaining prosecutors who were "loyal Bushies," according to e-mails released by Justice late yesterday.
The three e-mails also show that presidential adviser Karl Rove asked the White House counsel's office in early January 2005 whether it planned to proceed with a proposal to fire all 93 federal prosecutors. Officials said yesterday that Rove was opposed to that idea but wanted to know whether Justice planned to carry it out.
The e-mails provide new details about the early decision-making that led to the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year, indicating that Justice officials endorsed a larger number of firings than has been disclosed and that Rove expressed an early interest in the debate over the removals.
The messages also show that an internal administration push to remove a large number of federal prosecutors was well underway even as Alberto R. Gonzales, then the White House counsel, was preparing for Senate hearings on his nomination to be attorney general.
Gonzales talked "briefly" in December 2004, the messages show, with D. Kyle Sampson, who would become his chief of staff at Justice, about the plan to remove U.S. attorneys. Justice spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said Gonzales has "no recollection" of discussing the prosecutors' firings at the time, when he was preparing for his January 2005 confirmation hearings.
The dismissals, and the Bush administration's shifting explanations for them, led a growing number of lawmakers to demand Gonzales's resignation this week. Justice Department documents released Tuesday refuted the contention that the White House was not closely involved.
"The senator believes, as a matter of credibility, it would be most helpful to have an attorney general we can have full confidence in," said Lindsay Jackson, Smith's spokeswoman.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), one of six Democrats to support Gonzales's confirmation, also demanded his resignation after learning of e-mails that showed Justice officials actively planning to circumvent Pryor on the replacement for a fired Little Rock U.S. attorney in 2006. Pryor said Gonzales had told him that there was no attempt to avoid his input.
None of the three new e-mails is from Rove himself. They are part of a string of e-mail correspondence between other officials that ended with Sampson, at the time counselor to Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, offering the White House counsel's office four reasons the notion of removing all of the country's chief federal prosecutors was a bad idea.
Instead, Sampson wrote, "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."
But in regard to the idea of firing all U.S. attorneys, Sampson wrote: "That said, if Karl thinks there would be political will to do it, then so do I."
Sampson resigned this week after the Justice Department said he did not inform other senior officials of his communications with the White House in 2005 and 2006 about firing the prosecutors. That may have led them to provide incomplete information in testimony to lawmakers.
The first e-mail, dated Jan. 6, 2005, is from a White House counsel's office assistant. It indicates that Rove had stopped by that office to ask lawyer David Leitch whether a decision had been made to keep the U.S. attorneys in their jobs. The e-mail does not suggest that Rove advocated one outcome over another.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the e-mail matches Rove's account earlier this week that he vaguely remembers hearing about the idea of firing the 93 U.S. attorneys shortly after the 2004 election from Harriet E. Miers, then the nominee to replace Gonzales as White House counsel.
Rove once again defended the firings yesterday in a speech to students at Troy University and said the "super-heated rhetoric" criticizing the administration was not justified, the Associated Press reported.
Also yesterday, the Justice Department notified the Senate Judiciary Committee that four senior aides, including Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, would be made available to Senate investigators. The committee had authorized subpoenas for the four officials and Sampson.
Subpoenas for Rove, Miers and deputy White House counsel William Kelley were delayed for a week as the Judiciary Committee continued negotiations with the White House over their testimony.
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and John Solomon contributed to this report.