By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 17, 2007
More than two weeks after a New Mexico U.S. attorney alleged he was fired for not prosecuting Democrats, the White House and the Justice Department are still struggling to explain the roles of President Bush, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and other key officials in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors last year.
Yesterday, the White House retreated from its four-day-old claim that former counsel Harriet E. Miers started the process two years ago by proposing the firing of all 93 U.S. attorneys.
"It has been described as her idea . . . but I don't want to vouch for origination," press secretary Tony Snow said. "At this juncture, people have hazy memories."
In addition, D. Kyle Sampson, who resigned as Gonzales's chief of staff Monday, disputed the reasons given for his departure in a statement issued through his attorney last night.
"The fact that the White House and Justice Department had been discussing the subject for several years was well-known to a number of other senior officials at the department, including others who were involved in preparing the department's testimony to Congress," according to the statement by Sampson's lawyer, Bradford A. Berenson.
Snow's comments mark the latest revision of the administration's account of the firings, which has shifted repeatedly over the past week as new e-mails and other evidence have come to light in response to congressional demands for information. The precise roles of Gonzales, presidential adviser Karl Rove and the president himself remain unclear, even as calls for Gonzales's resignation continue to mount.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) yesterday became the third GOP lawmaker to call for Gonzales's ouster, saying that "it would benefit this administration if the attorney general was replaced with someone with a more professional focus rather than personal loyalty" to Bush.
The White House rebuffed demands yesterday from the House and Senate Judiciary committees for more information on the firings, saying the administration needs more time before turning over additional documents or deciding whether to allow key White House officials to testify. The Justice Department announced that it will provide new documents to the committees Monday.
The developments capped a tumultuous and difficult week for Gonzales and White House officials, who have attempted to play down the importance of more than 140 pages of documents and e-mails released so far that show the White House was closely involved in an effort to remove a group of federal prosecutors based, in part, on their loyalty to Bush. Officials had previously described the dismissals as "performance related" and handled within the Justice Department.
Seven U.S. attorneys were fired 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 the attorneys' 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.
While the firings themselves initially prompted questions from Congress, a major issue for lawmakers has since become whether they were misled in testimony by Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, and subsequently in public explanations by Justice and the White House.
Administration officials have acknowledged in recent days that, in Gonzales's words, "mistakes were made," but have defended the dismissals as justified by the prosecutors' performance and management issues. They have denied partisan motives in any of the firings.
The e-mails released this week show that the Justice Department had advocated ousting up to 20 percent of the U.S. attorneys in early 2005 and that Gonzales had discussed the idea of the firings even before he became attorney general. Rove also expressed an interest in the status of the effort in January 2005.
One January 2006 memo written by Sampson attributed the initial idea to Miers. "Harriet, you have asked whether President Bush should remove and replace U.S. attorneys . . . " he wrote.
Many of the documents released over the past week were sent or received by Sampson, whose resignation, Gonzales and other Justice officials said, was prompted by his failure to tell others in the department about his contacts with the White House, leading to testimony by McNulty and others that may have been misleading.
Sampson disputed that version of events in his statement last night, saying he "felt he had let the attorney general down in failing to . . . organize a more effective political response to the unfounded accusations of impropriety in the replacement process."
Sampson's statement also suggested that his contacts with the White House were well known within Justice. If the contacts were not brought to the attention of McNulty and others, the statement said, it was "because no one focused on it or deemed it important at the time."
The Justice Department had no immediate comment last night.
The department announced earlier that Sampson would be replaced by Chuck Rosenberg, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, who previously served in similar roles for former attorney general John D. Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.
Snow and other administration officials previously said that Miers first suggested firing all U.S. attorneys after the 2004 elections, citing e-mails from Sampson and Rove's recollection of events.
Officials have said that Gonzales and Rove opposed that idea and that Justice embarked on a more limited effort that led to the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys.
Snow was asked yesterday whether Bush might have suggested the firings.
"Anything's possible . . . but I don't think so," he said, adding that Bush "certainly has no recollection of any such thing. . . . I want you to be clear here: Don't be dropping it at the president's door."
Democrats pounced on the latest shift in events.
"The story keeps changing, which neither does them or the public any good," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "They ought to gather all the facts and tell the public the truth."
Democrats also criticized the White House for saying it needed more time to turn over records and decide whether senior aides, including Rove, should be allowed to submit to interviews with congressional investigators.
"The White House is playing a dangerous game of chicken," said Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), chairman of a Judiciary subcommittee leading an investigation into the firings.
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Jerry Markon and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.