By Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 21, 2007; A01
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.
The new records show that Sampson called one prosecutor, David C. Iglesias of New Mexico, a "diverse up-and-comer." Sampson listed Iglesias as a candidate for three important jobs in 2004: the U.S. attorney in Manhattan; the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia; and the head of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, the division that would eventually fire him.
Iglesias was not added to the firing list until last fall; he has called his dismissal a "political hit." He told Congress he was improperly pressured in pre-election telephone calls from Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) about a corruption investigation he was heading at the time.
Repeatedly in the months leading up to the firings, Justice officials derided the U.S. attorneys who would lose their jobs in often sharp terms, the internal e-mails show.
Brent Ward, director of a Justice Department obscenity task force, opposed sending FBI and Justice officials to Las Vegas last August to persuade then-U.S. attorney Daniel G. Bogden to pursue more cases: "[T]o go out to LV and sit and listen to the lame excuses of a defiant U.S. attorney is only going to move this whole enterprise closer to catastrophe."
A month later, after a Seattle newspaper quoted then-U.S. Attorney John McKay lamenting budget constraints on his office, McNulty aide Michael Elston fired off a note to senior counsel Monica Goodling: "Even when he is in Ireland, he causes problems!"
The Justice Department's statements to lawmakers contrast markedly with officials' private judgments, the e-mails show.
Last June, for example, Justice officials painstakingly drafted soothing responses to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who had expressed concerns that Lam was not aggressive enough in prosecuting immigration violations in her San Diego district. "Please rest assured that the immigration laws in the southern district of California are being vigorously enforced," said a draft of a letter from Moschella to Issa.
But e-mails show that senior Justice officials were angry at Lam for her immigration record and planned for months to remove her. William Mercer, now third in command at Justice, exchanged a flurry of e-mails with Elston last July mocking Lam, writing at one point in her voice: "You're right, I've ignored national priorities and obvious local needs. Shoot my production is more hideous than I realized."
At first, before the administration sought to justify the firings as being based on performance, several of the U.S. attorneys let Justice officials know they would leave quietly. "I assure you my call will be pleasant and respectful," Iglesias wrote McNulty on Jan. 3.
In January, an assistant to Kevin V. Ryan, who had been fired as U.S. attorney in San Francisco, passed along that "he wanted us to know that he's still a 'company man' " and was "doing his best to stay out of this," according to an e-mail.
But as the weeks after their firings wore on, several prosecutors grew markedly more negative in tone -- most notably Chiara, 63. She carried on an e-mail exchange with McNulty and others in which she bemoaned her dismissal, noted financial difficulties and pleaded for help finding employment.
"The notoriety of being one of the 'USA-8' coupled with my age being constantly cited in the press is proving to be a formidable obstacle to securing employment," Chiara wrote McNulty on March 4. "I ask that you endorse or otherwise encourage my selection for reasons discussed in previous e-mails."
With the scandal escalating and with congressional Democrats announcing oversight hearings, Sampson told colleagues on Jan. 25 that McNulty should testify. "We need to be serious and hit back hard," he wrote.
"Are you crazy? No way. You ask him!" Moschella replied 11 minutes later. Elston responded next, saying that McNulty had already chosen Moschella to be the witness. Moschella replied: "Are you serious? I was going to be in El Paso on Wednesday."
The documents reveal that, in preparation for his testimony about limited White House involvement on March 6, Moschella was at a planning meeting organized by Kelley, the deputy White House counsel, the previous evening.
Kelley, who was frequently briefed by Sampson on the firings over the past two years, called the White House session to "go over the administration's position on all aspects of the US Atty issue, including what we are going to say about the proposed legislation and why the US Attys were asked to resign."
Staff writers Perry Bacon and John Solomon and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.