washingtonpost.com
White House Countermeasures

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 20, 2007 1:28 PM

Last night's 3,000-page Justice Department document dump, still dribbling out into the public domain, appears to be a much more carefully screened release than the smaller but newsier one last week.

In barely acknowledging the White House role in the highly controversial, possibly politically-motivated firing of eight U.S. attorneys, these new documents may best be described as a lot of chaff, intended to deflect attention from evidence in the previous dump that the purge originated at the White House, was executed by the White House, and was extensively discussed with White House aides.

Similarly, President Bush's message of support this morning for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has all the trappings of a carefully staged hail-Mary, with the president giving his friend one last chance to rally enough Republican support to ride out the storm.

But the indications remain that Bush may well toss Gonzales overboard, especially if that's the only way he can see to prevent the scandal from being pursued deeper into the West Wing.

Or, as Ed Henry reported on CNN this morning: "As one top Republican told me last night, a Republican close to the White House, saying basically the handwriting is on the wall for Gonzales. And the bottom line is if this White House has to choose between protecting Karl Rove or protecting Alberto Gonzales in order for this controversy to go away, they'll choose Karl Rove, protecting him. Because the bottom line is they can get another attorney general, they can't get another Karl Rove. He's got his hands in so many things here. He's the lead adviser to the president."

Bush's Call

Howard Schneider writes for The Washington Post: "President Bush reaffirmed his 'strong backing and support' for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in a telephone conversation with him this morning, an endorsement that came amid wide speculation about Gonzales's future in the administration.

"White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said the president called Gonzales around 7:15 a.m. to assure him he still had the president's backing despite controversy over the Justice Department's firing last year of eight U.S. attorneys.

"Even some Republicans have withdrawn their support from Gonzales over the firings and encouraged him to step down. Political analysts and blogs have begun speculating about possible replacements and claimed that the White House has begun its own search.

"In comments this morning Perino said no such search is underway."

Counterattack

Robert Schmidt and James Rowley write for Bloomberg: "The Bush administration sought to quell the controversy over the firing of eight federal prosecutors by giving Congress e-mails that show the U.S. attorneys were the target of complaints and had policy disputes with officials in Washington."

For instance, they write: "Among some 3,000 pages of Justice Department documents delivered to Congress last night were e-mails describing a feud between fired San Diego prosecutor Carol Lam and Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican who complained that she hadn't aggressively enforced immigration laws along the Mexican border.

"Democrats have questioned whether Lam was fired for leading the investigation of Randall H. 'Duke' Cunningham, a former California Republican congressman who pleaded guilty to accepting millions of dollars in bribes to help companies get defense contracts."

But the Issa exchange, as well as a letter from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein expressing concern over Lam's immigration record both came after-- not before -- Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson warned the White House of a "real problem" with Lam. That warning came one day after Lam notified the Justice Department of search warrants in a Republican bribery scandal.

Richard A. Serrano and Richard B. Schmitt write in the Los Angeles Times: "The documents show that Justice Department officials have been scrambling over the last two months to control the amount of damaging fallout and negative publicity from the widening scandal, even lamenting at one point that 'we just want the stories to die.'"

The Angry AG

David Johnston and John M. Broder write in the New York Times: "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales was 'extremely upset' that his deputy told Congress last month that a federal prosecutor had been fired for no reason, according to e-mail released Monday by the Justice Department.

"Mr. Gonzales believed that the prosecutor, H. E. Cummins III, the United States attorney for Arkansas, was dismissed for performance reasons, the e-mail suggested. But his deputy, Paul J. McNulty, testified that Mr. Cummins had been replaced to create a vacancy for J. Timothy Griffin, a political ally of the White House political adviser Karl Rove. . . .

"Agency officials said the documents showed the dismissals had been over performance, not politics, as critics have charged."

And yet another e-mail "showed that even top officials were not certain of the rationale for some firings. In a December 5 Mr. McNulty admitted that he had not even reviewed the record of [Daniel K. Bogden of Nevada] and appeared to have mixed feelings about removing him. . . .

"'I'll admit have not looked at his district's performance,' Mr. McNulty added."

Afraid of Testimony

Kevin Johnson writes for USA Today about e-mail that "showed that Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, was discouraging calls for Cummins to testify before the Senate committee as questions about the firings began mushrooming into a full-blown political firestorm.

"'I don't think he should,' Sampson said in a Feb. 1 e-mail to six Justice Department officials, including McNulty.

"At that time, Sampson appeared clearly worried about the department's potential exposure.

"'How would he answer: Did you resign voluntarily? Were you told why you were being asked to resign? Who told you? When did they tell you? What did they say?' the e-mail said."

White House Role

While there is scant new evidence of the all-important White House role in the latest documents, there are nevertheless a few new data points.

For instance, several e-mails show that the White House vetted and approved the congressional testimony of Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General William E. Moschella, both of whom told congressional committees that neither politics or the White House played a role in the firings.

And other e-mails show how top Justice Department officials were summoned by deputy White House counsel William Kelley on March 5 for a strategy session on dealing with the media. Just two days earlier, the first evidence of the White House role had started to emerge.

Presidential Role?

Tim Grieve in Salon describes the "circumstantial evidence" that Bush himself gave his approval.

"On Nov. 15, 2006, Kyle Sampson, chief of staff for Alberto Gonzales, forwarded to White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Deputy White House Counsel William Kelley a plan for firing U.S. attorneys over the next two days. 'We'll stand by for a green light from you,' he wrote.

"Miers responded about half an hour later. 'Not sure whether this will be determined to require the boss's attention,' she wrote. 'If it does, he just left last night so would not be able to accomplish that for some time. We will see. Thanks.'

"In response, Sampson asked: 'Who will determine whether this requires the President's attention?'

"That's where the e-mail chain seems to end. . . .

"On Dec. 4, 2006, Kelley sent Sampson an e-mail -- with a 'cc' to Miers -- saying: 'We're a go for the US Atty plan. WH leg, political and communications have signed off and acknowledged that we have to be committed to following through once the pressure comes.' The U.S. attorneys were told of their departures three days later."

Parallel Processing

Josh Marshall's experiment in blog-based journalism continues today, with the TPMMuckraker site asking readers to help comb through all the documents.

Some of the postings are particularly astute. A reader named "kis" writes: "It is VERY telling what is NOT in the dump. It defies logic that Lam's investigation would never have some up, even as a potential reason to leave her in position. Like everyone would have so easily avoided talking about the elephant in the room? This is a heavily scrubbed dump. I'm sure the talking point will be something like 'we already gave them 3000 pages . . . what more do they want?'"

Fitzgerald's Ranking

One of the intriguing developments today did not emerge from the new document dump, but from more digging into the old one.

Dan Eggen and John Solomon write in The Washington Post: "U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald was ranked among prosecutors who had 'not distinguished themselves' on a Justice Department chart sent to the White House in March 2005, when he was in the midst of leading the CIA leak investigation that resulted in the perjury conviction of a vice presidential aide, administration officials said yesterday.

"The ranking placed Fitzgerald below 'strong U.S. Attorneys . . . who exhibited loyalty' to the administration but above 'weak U.S. Attorneys who . . . chafed against Administration initiatives, etc.,' according to Justice documents.

"The chart was the first step in an effort to identify U.S. attorneys who should be removed. Two prosecutors who received the same ranking as Fitzgerald were later fired, documents show."

Fitzgerald was placed in the middle category: "No recommendation; have not distinguished themselves either positively or negatively."

Patriot Act

Carl Hulse and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in the New York Times: "The Senate moved Monday to revoke authority it granted the Bush administration last year to name federal prosecutors, with Democrats accusing the administration of abusing the appointment power at the center of an escalating clash over the ouster of eight United States attorneys.

"The move to overturn an obscure provision of the USA Patriot Act that allowed the attorney general to appoint federal prosecutors for an indefinite period without Senate confirmation....

"Some senators said the provision was used to clear the way for firing prosecutors and replacing them with candidates considered more in line with the administration.

"'We can't trust this administration to use that authority in a fair and constructive manner,' said Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, who helped begin an inquiry into the dismissals by objecting to the administration's choice for his state. 'They have proven it to us.'"

The Fourth Anniversary

of the War

Jim Rutenberg and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush's commemoration of the anniversary, delivered beneath a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt as a Rough Rider, was notable for the sharp change in tone from his speeches in the heady, early days of the war -- when it still appeared possible that a quick victory in Baghdad could be followed by a relatively swift withdrawal. In those first few months, Mr. Bush argued that he was on the way to spreading democracy throughout the Middle East through the euphoria that would surely follow the unseating of Saddam Hussein."

For more, see yesterday's column.

Editorial Watch

Newsday: "It defies both reality and logic to claim the war in Iraq can be won, as President George W. Bush did yesterday, the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of that country. . . .

"This president is never going to admit what is obvious to the American people: that his gamble in Iraq is a failure and that the issue now is how to best disengage our forces without creating such a vacuum of authority that Iraq becomes a haven for terrorists or a catalyst for a regional war. Our unsettling impression is that Bush's underlying goal is to leave office without ever having to acknowledge he was wrong to launch a preventive war in Iraq. . . .

"Four years ago, Bush was telling the American people that the troops would be home in months, not years. Why should we believe him now?"

Austin American-Statesman: "In an almost pathetic display of lost political momentum, President Bush took to the airwaves Monday morning to ask the nation and world for more patience with the Iraq war. . . .

"The continued fighting means continued losses and continued heartache. Patience, the president pleads once again. Until the political impasse is resolved, the country does not have a choice on whether to grant him the request."

Slipping Support

Ben Arnoldy writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Support among Americans for the Iraq war began to slip just weeks after US troops breached Baghdad and toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein. But since last fall, the downward slope has become precipitous, with doubts spreading from Democrats and independents into the Republican core of support.

"As the nation takes stock of a war it embarked on four years ago Tuesday, those who regret that decision now outnumber supporters by 14 percentage points. Accelerating the slide, say opinion analysts, were bipartisan criticisms of US war policy by the Iraq Study Group and concerns that the mission has been obscured by civil war."

No Reply

Eric Zorn writes in his Chicago Tribune opinion column: "The two-page letter is signed from the 'proud father of a fallen soldier.'

"A little more than six weeks ago, his soul a cauldron of grief and rage, Richard Landeck, 56, of Wheaton addressed and mailed it to President Bush.

"And since he has yet to receive an acknowledgment or reply, he asked me if I'd help get his message out.

"'My voice, and that of many other frustrated Americans, is not being heard,' he said.

"It's the least I can do, I replied. . . .

"'This war is wrong,' says the last paragraph of Landeck's letter to the president. 'Because of your ineptness ... I have lost my son, my pride and joy, my hero! (You) will never understand what the families of soldiers are going through and don't try to tell me you do. My wife, my daughter and I cannot believe we have lost our only son and brother to a ridiculous political war.'"

Es La Verdad

Jim Rutenberg and Marc Lacey wrote in the New York Times last week, during Bush's Latin American visit, about how Guatemalan President Oscar Berger confronted Bush about the arrest of several hundred illegal workers, many of them Guatemalans, in Massachusetts the week before.

"Facing pointed questions from Guatemalan journalists, Mr. Bush stood by the raid, saying, 'People will be treated with respect, but the United States will enforce our law.'

"Mr. Bush said he disputed 'conspiracies' relayed by Mr. Berger that children were taken away from families.

"Mr. Bush denied such accounts. 'No es la verdad,' Mr. Bush said, 'That's not the way America operates. We're a decent, compassionate country. Those are the kind of things we do not do. We believe in families, and we'll treat people with dignity.'"

But that is indeed the way Bush's government operates.

Robin Shulman writes in The Washington Post on the fallout from the March 6 raid on the Michael Bianco Inc. factory -- a military contractor 60 miles south of Boston. Of the 360 illegal immigrants taken into custody, she writes, "many... were women whose detention separated them from their children, some of whom were stranded at day-care centers, schools, or friends' or relatives' homes. . . .

"Under public pressure, immigration officials began to send single parents home, or if they had arrested both parents, to release one. But as of late last week, New Bedford school officials said the children of at least six arrested immigrants remained in the care of someone other than their parents, and many more were missing one parent."

Yvonne Abraham writes in the Boston Globe that "the welfare of children affected by immigration raids has become a bigger issue in recent months as the scope of the immigration raids has expanded.

"The Bush administration has stepped up enforcement efforts to answer its critics and build a credible stance to push for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a guest worker program and paths to citizenship for some of the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country. . . .

"Children can be separated from detained parents for months, while parents await bond hearings, or deportation. Parents who leave the United States face the choice of taking US citizen children with them, or being separated from them permanently in the hope of giving those children better opportunities here. Social service workers in other cities where raids took place told of scrambling to try to get passports for the US citizen children whose parents chose to take them back to the countries they left."

Climate Change Watch

Andrew C. Revkin and Matthew L. Wald write in the New York Times: "A House committee released documents Monday that showed hundreds of instances in which a White House official who was previously an oil industry lobbyist edited government climate reports to play up uncertainty of a human role in global warming or play down evidence of such a role.

"In a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the official, Philip A. Cooney, who left government in 2005, defended the changes he had made in government reports over several years. Mr. Cooney said the editing was part of the normal White House review process and reflected findings in a climate report written for President Bush by the National Academy of Sciences in 2001."

Gators Yesterday

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Any time he honors a championship team, President Bush looks for a chance to bring up the underdog theme.

"If he can link it to his own presidency, that's even better. . . .

"In a chilly South Lawn ceremony, Bush lauded the University of Florida's football team on Monday for its 2006 championship season. The Gators routed Ohio State, 41-14, in January despite being given little chance to win by oddsmakers and millions of college football fans.

"'Like you might remember, all the pre-game polls said you couldn't win,' Bush told the team. 'So much for polls.'"

Cars Today

David Shepardson writes in the Detroit News: "President Bush today will tour two factories where Detroit automakers churn out gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, as he expands his energy-saving message from a focus on alternative fuels to an emphasis on vehicles, as well. . . .

"Bush's visit to the Kansas City area plants -- the first of his presidency to domestic auto factories -- will also kick off an effort to improve relations with Detroit's Big Three automakers after a rocky year."

Torture Watch

From a Washington Post editorial: "The administration claims it has not used torture on prisoners such as [Khalid Sheik] Mohammed. Yet it has been working aggressively to ensure that he and 13 other accused terrorists formerly held in secret CIA prisons are never allowed to reveal how they were treated. . . .

"[T]he administration is making the surreal argument in court that in being subjected to 'alternative' interrogation methods, al-Qaeda detainees were receiving top-secret information -- and so may be prohibited from ever discussing their experience, even to the defense attorneys seeking to represent them. . . .

"Two senators who attended Mr. Mohammed's Guantanamo hearing, Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), issued a statement calling for an investigation of the torture charges. Yet any administration investigation -- especially one conducted in secret -- will almost certainly conclude that the waterboarding was approved by senior administration officials. What's needed is a genuinely independent investigation, one that airs Mr. Mohammed's charges and tests the administration's claim that the CIA's actions were legal. Mr. Levin -- as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- could conduct such a probe in cooperation with the Intelligence or Judiciary committees. What's stopping him?"

Post-Bush Awakening?

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "[T]his botched war is far more likely to lead to what might properly be called the Post-Bush Awakening. It is an awakening to the danger of viewing critics as traitors, to the costs of making everything about politics and to the sad tendency of establishmentarians to seek refuge within the boundaries of prevailing opinion.

"It is also an awakening to the wise skepticism of everyday Americans toward ideologues who believe that optional wars of their design can miraculously change the world. . . .

"[T]hose who spent the past four years hyping threats, underestimating costs, ignoring rational warnings, painting unrealistic futures and savaging their opponents have been discredited. This awakening is the first step toward rebuilding our country's influence and power."

Cheney the Mole?

Nicholas D. Kristof writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Is Dick Cheney an Iranian mole?"

"Consider that the Bush administration's first major military intervention was to overthrow Afghanistan's Taliban regime, Iran's bitter foe to the east. Then the administration toppled Iran's even worse enemy to the west, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq."

Kristof is joking, of course. "Mr. Cheney isn't an Iranian mole. Nor is he a North Korean mole, though his we-don't-negotiate-with-evil policy toward North Korea has resulted in that country's quadrupling its nuclear arsenal. It's also unlikely that he is an Al Qaeda mole, even though Al Qaeda now has an important new base of support in Iraq.

"Like Kennedy and Johnson wading into Vietnam, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney harmed American interests not out of malice but out of ineptitude. I concede that they honestly wanted the best for America, but we still ended up getting the worst."

Impeachment Watch

On CNN yesterday, Wolf Blitzer talked to Mayor Rocky Anderson of Salt Lake City, who supports Bush's impeachment.

"ANDERSON: Well, this is a unique time in our nation's history. I think if impeachment were ever justified, this certainly is the time. This president, by engaging in such incredible abuses of power, breaches of trust with both the Congress and the American people, and misleading us into this tragic, unbelievable war, the violation of treaties, either international or our Constitution -- our own domestic law, and then his role in heinous human rights abuses, I think all of that together calls for impeachment and certainly would communicate to the rest of the world that is not who we are as the American people. . . .

"BLITZER: You are really going after not only the president and the vice president, but some of your fellow Democrats. You are basically saying, they don't have the guts to step up and impeach the president.

"ANDERSON: Well, I think that is clear beyond anybody's speculations. It is -- the fact that anybody would say to that impeachment is off the table when we have a president who has been so egregious in his violations of our Constitution."

Zip It!

John Aravosis of Americablog suggests that White House press secretary Tony Snow was modeling Dr. Evil when he told CNN's Ed Henry to 'zip it' yesterday.

For background, see the "Getting Testy" section of yesterday's column.

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart, showing footage of Bush's hesitant approach to the podium yesterday: "On this special day, President Bush spoke in the White House library -- a place he's so unfamiliar with, he's not sure whether the door closes automatically."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on mission bumbled; Ben Sargent on Bush's request; Jeff Danziger on subpoena power; Tony Auth on Rove's uncharted territory; Pat Oliphant on Dr. Strangerove; and Dwane Powell on the U.S. attorneys who remain.

Plus, in an animation, Ann Telnaes examines Dick Cheney's answer to everything.

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