By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 30, 2007
The chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary committees yesterday ratcheted up their fight with President Bush over documents on the firing of U.S. attorneys, sending the White House a barbed letter demanding that the president back down from a claim of executive privilege -- or give Congress a detailed explanation for withholding each document.
In the letter to the White House counsel, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) accused the administration of a "veil of secrecy . . . unprecedented and damaging to the tradition of open government."
The correspondence came a day after the White House invoked executive privilege, for the second time in Bush's tenure, to block the release of internal e-mails and other documents that congressional investigators are seeking to clarify what role Bush's senior staff played in the Justice Department's removal of nine chief federal prosecutors last year. The firings have triggered bipartisan calls for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to resign.
Yesterday's letter marks Congress's first move toward enforcing subpoenas issued by the committees this month. The lawmakers had sought documents and testimony from former White House political director Sara M. Taylor and former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers. Internal Justice e-mails show they were involved in the dismissals.
The committee chairmen told the White House to provide a signed letter from Bush asserting executive privilege, as well as a description of each withheld document, a list of who has seen the documents, and the legal basis for arguing that they may be shielded from public view.
That demand, with a July 9 deadline, is the beginning of several steps lawmakers are empowered to take to try to overcome the executive privilege claim. Those steps could culminate in Congress voting to find the president in criminal contempt and to refer the matter to a federal prosecutor with a recommendation to issue an indictment.
Neither Leahy nor Conyers, whose panels are leading the investigation into the Justice Department and the firings, have said how far they intend to pursue the matter legally. Their letter says they "will appropriately enforce our subpoenas backed by the full force of the law."
The lawmakers and White House officials have accused each other of being unwilling to compromise. In asserting executive privilege, White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding wrote to the committee chairmen that the refusal "rests upon a bedrock presidential prerogative" to ensure that presidential advisers feel free to provide "candid and unfettered advice."
Asked how the White House plans to respond to yesterday's letter, deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said, "We'll review it." Calling it "another overreach," he said, "They are not interested in facts. They are interested in sending off letters with vitriolic language."
Also yesterday, the Justice Department announced that Rachel Brand, assistant attorney general for legal policy, is resigning, becoming the seventh senior aide to Gonzales to step down in the past few months.
Brand, who worked on the renewal of the USA Patriot Act last year and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices in 2005, is not known to have played a direct role in the U.S. attorneys' removal. However, department officials have said that Gonzales's former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, asked her whether she might want to replace a Michigan prosecutor who was forced out. Though interested at first, Brand did not apply for the job. Justice officials said she plans to leave July 9 and stay at home with her first child, due this summer.
In another development involving the U.S. attorneys controversy, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted this week to reverse a policy, authorized at the Justice Department's urging in the Patriot Act, that had allowed federal prosecutors to live and work in different places.
The change, backed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), is intended to halt a recent practice in which several U.S. attorneys have simultaneously held jobs as senior aides to Gonzales and spent most of their time in Washington.