By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Attorneys for former president George W. Bush, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Obama administration reached agreement yesterday to resolve a long-running dispute over the scope of executive power, a move that will allow lawmakers to question Bush aides Karl Rove and Harriet E. Miers about their roles in the firing of nine federal prosecutors in 2006.
The pact follows weeks of negotiations led by White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig, who wanted to avert a federal court showdown that could have restricted the authority of the president in future disputes with other branches of government.
Under the terms of the deal, former presidential adviser Rove and former White House lawyer Miers will testify before the House Judiciary Committee in transcribed interviews, under penalty of perjury, but without cameras, reporters or members of the public in attendance. The transcripts eventually will be published, the agreement said.
The settlement gives the Judiciary Committee access to long-sought internal documents prepared by the Bush White House and the Justice Department from December 2004 through March 2007 about the politically explosive firing of the nine prosecutors. Lawmakers also reserved the right to ask the onetime Bush aides to testify in public and made clear that Congress could revive its lawsuit in a federal court in the District if former administration officials stray from the agreement.
"We have finally broken through the Bush administration's claims of absolute immunity," said Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who sued last year over the issue after the aides refused to appear voluntarily. "This is a victory for the separation of powers and congressional oversight."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) cheered the agreement and said that "when there are credible allegations about the politicization of law enforcement, the need for congressional oversight is at its greatest."
Lawmakers will not ask Rove or Miers about privileged conversations they had with members of the Bush White House legal team, and they will not be able to see "four pages of particularly sensitive privileged material" to be described by a Bush representative, the agreement said.
Rob Saliterman, a spokesman for Bush, said the former president acted "at the urging of the Obama administration, and in consideration of the executive branch interests at stake."
Robert D. Luskin, an attorney for Rove, said that the agreement is "good news" and that Rove "looks forward to addressing the committee's concerns."
Congressional Democrats have been seeking inside accounts of what White House aides knew about the firing of the nine U.S. attorneys. The Justice Department inspector general concluded last year that some of the prosecutors were fired for improper political reasons, but internal department investigators lacked the authority to compel Rove, Miers and former White House lawyer William Kelley to testify. Lawmakers are just as interested in "decisions to retain certain U.S. attorneys" and whether selective prosecutions may have taken place, the agreement said.
The basis for the firings is the focus of a criminal investigation by special prosecutor Nora R. Dannehy, named last year by then-Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey to consider whether any crimes had been committed in connection with the firings or in congressional testimony by former Justice Department leaders about the scandal.
In recent weeks Dannehy has issued subpoenas through a grand jury in the District. Along with FBI agents and representatives from the Justice Department inspector general's office, she has been scheduling interviews with key players including former White House political deputy Scott Jennings.
Craig, the top lawyer for President Obama, said the agreement is "the product of a tremendous amount of hard work, patience, and flexibility on both sides." The pact will not set any precedent that could tie the hands of the Obama administration, according to lawyers who reviewed it.
"The agreement will allow the Committee to complete its investigation into the U.S. Attorneys matter and it will do so in the way such disputes have historically been resolved -- through negotiation and accommodation between the legislative and executive branches," Craig said in a statement.
W. Neil Eggleston, a former White House lawyer for President Bill Clinton, said the deal amounted to a "good resolution . . . that gets the House Judiciary Committee and the American public the information it needs to complete this investigation but still recognizes some interest in the White House protecting truly confidential communications."