Justice Dept. Advocated Removing 15-20 Percent of U.S. Attorneys, E-Mails Show

By John Solomon and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 15, 2007; 7:32 PM

The Justice Department advocated removing 15 to 20 percent of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys who it considered to be "underperforming" in early 2005, leaving behind prosecutors who were "loyal Bushies," according to a new e-mail document released today.

The three e-mails released by the Justice Department also show that White House presidential adviser Karl Rove asked the White House counsel's office in early January 2005 whether it planned to proceed with a previous proposal to fire all the federal prosecutors. Officials said Rove was opposed to that idea but wanted to know if Justice officials planned to carry it out.

The e-mails, which are expected to be among a group of new documents provided to Congress on Friday, provide new details about the early decision-making that led to the controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

The dismissals, and the Bush administration's shifting explanations for them, have led a growing number of lawmakers to demand the resignation of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. A second Republican called for his ouster today.

The e-mails indicate that Justice officials had endorsed a larger number of firings than previously disclosed and that Rove had expressed an early interest in the debate over how many should be removed.

None of the e-mails are from Rove himself. They include correspondence between other officials that concluded with a Justice official, D. Kyle Sampson, offering the White House counsel's office four reasons why the notion of removing all of the country's chief federal prosecutors was a bad idea.

"As an operational matter, we would like to replace 15-20 percent of the current U.S. Attorneys--the underperforming ones," Sampson wrote on Jan. 9, 2005. "...The vast majority of U.S. Attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc., etc."

Sampson resigned this week as Gonzales' chief of staff. Justice officials said he did not inform other senior officials that he had extensive communications with the White House over the attorney firings, leading some to offer incomplete information in testimony to lawmakers.

The e-mail string includes one brief message from a White House counsel's office assistant indicating that Rove had stopped by the counsel's office on Jan. 6, 2005 to ask lawyer David Leitch whether a decision had been made to keep the U.S. attorneys in their jobs at the start of Bush's second term. The e-mail does not suggest that Rove advocated any outcome.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the e-mail matches Rove's account, released earlier this week, that he vaguely remembers first hearing about the idea of firing the 93 U.S. attorneys shortly after the November 2004 election from Harriet E. Miers, who was then the nominee to become White House counsel. Rove has said he believes he told Miers it was a bad idea, Perino said.

"The e-mail is consistent with what we had said. During the transition an idea was floated to replace all 93 U.S. attorneys and Karl said he vaguely remembers saying to Harriet it was a bad idea, that it would be unwise," Perino said. "This simply shows him following up to find out where the idea stood."

The e-mail string is expected to be turned over tomorrow to the Senate and House judiciary committees, which are investigating whether Bush administration officials misled Congress with their original explanations of why the eight U.S. attorneys were fired last year.

Justice officials originally said the firings were handled entirely inside their department and were related to the performances of specific prosecutors.

But earlier this week, e-mails and documents showed that the process of firing the eight began in early 2005 with a suggestion from Miers to remove all 93 prosecutors. That proposal was scaled back by Justice officials to firing a handful of prosecutors believed to have done a poor job pursuing Bush administration priorities such as voter fraud prosecutions, immigration and gun cases.

The firings were finalized after members of Congress, Rove and Bush himself raised concerns with Justice officials about some of the prosecutors' handling of corruption and voter fraud cases in the fall of 2006.

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