E-Mails Reveal Tumult In Firings and Aftermath

By Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On the morning of Feb. 7, the day after a combative Senate hearing over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty was looking on the bright side.

"Paul reports this morning that he's hearing good reports from the Committee," a senior Justice official reported in an e-mail. "In particular, Sen. Schumer's counsel told him that the issue has basically run its course."

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, traveling 5,000 miles away in Buenos Aires, did not agree. "The Attorney General is extremely upset with the stories on the US Attys this morning," a press aide wrote. "He also thought some of the DAG's statements were inaccurate."

The e-mail exchange -- part of about 3,000 pages of internal documents turned over to Congress this week -- show a confused and divided Justice Department under siege in a political crisis largely of its own making. The crisis now threatens Gonzales's tenure as the nation's chief law enforcement official.

The documents also show that the White House was more closely involved than had been known in attempting to contain the controversy as it began to spin out of control in recent weeks. Just two weeks ago, on March 5, White House lawyer William Kelley personally oversaw a meeting called to prepare and edit testimony by William Moschella, the principal associate deputy attorney general. Moschella told the House Judiciary Committee the next day that the White House was only tangentially involved in the dismissals.

With an attorney general seemingly focused on other matters, McNulty and other senior Justice officials struggled to cope with pressure from increasingly agitated lawmakers. A Justice spokesman sought to mislead a reporter by questioning the accuracy of his sources, as other officials revised the administration's story and deflected queries from Congress about the firings. The dismissals would eventually be revealed as the result of a two-year-old plan, hatched in the White House, to sack U.S. attorneys seen as disloyal to the administration.

The dismissal process itself, the documents show, was chaotic and spiked with petty cruelties. Two senior officials joked caustically about U.S. Attorney Carol Lam in San Diego -- who prosecuted the corruption case of former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) -- calling her "sad" and saying her record was "hideous."

McNulty also admits he is "skittish" about the firing of a Nevada prosecutor, whose file he has never read; he approves the dismissal anyway. Through it all, the fired prosecutors are baffled and increasingly embittered by their removal and the Justice Department's shifting explanations.

"This makes me so sad. Why have I been asked to resign?" U.S. Attorney Margaret M. Chiara writes to McNulty on Feb. 1. A month later, she scolds him in an e-mail: "It is abundantly clear that this regrettable situation could have been better managed if the reasons for the dismissals were initially communicated to the affected United States Attorneys."

The new e-mails and other documents, provided to the House and Senate Judiciary committees late Monday night, focus primarily on the Justice Department's reasons for firing the prosecutors and its stumbling efforts to justify the dismissals since they were carried out in December.

For all their vivid detail, the e-mails and other records shed little light on the Bush administration's motives for carrying out the firings in the way it did. The new documents also provide little evidence that Justice officials sought to interfere with public corruption probes, as many Democrats and some of the prosecutors have alleged.

Along with documents released last week, the new records show that the firing lists drawn up by D. Kyle Sampson, a former Gonzales aide who resigned last week, frequently changed, rarely including the same group of allegedly inferior U.S. attorneys. Only four of those fired were included on an initial March 2005 ranking chart.

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