By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 16, 2007 2:20 PM
When it comes to determining why eight U.S. attorneys were fired last year and how extensively the White House was involved, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's highly-anticipated Senate testimony tomorrow may also end up being highly unrevealing.
Judging from his prepared statement and his Washington Post op-ed, Gonzales will continue to insist that, while he doesn't really know why he fired the attorneys, he simply cannot believe that he did so for improper reasons.
As a result, his testimony appears unlikely either to salvage his credibility or help investigators resolve any of the key questions in a scandal that seems to have had its roots in the West Wing.
Here's the text of the opening statement he intends to make tomorrow morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Addressing the conflicting statements he has made about his own involvement, Gonzales insists: "I never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people about my role in this matter. I do acknowledge however that at times I have been less than precise with my words when discussing the resignations."
Here's the text of his Post op-ed, in which he writes more about "convictions" than facts: "I know that I did not -- and would not -- ask for the resignation of any U.S. attorney for an improper reason. Furthermore, I have no basis to believe that anyone involved in this process sought the removal of a U.S. attorney for an improper reason."
In his hairsplitting word choice, Gonzales implicitly acknowledges that there may have been all sorts of things going on -- including, quite remarkably, his own actions -- the he either doesn't remember or didn't pay attention to at the time. Writing about his talks with his chief of staff, for instance, the attorney general writes: "During those conversations, to my knowledge, I did not make decisions about who should or should not be asked to resign."
David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis write in the New York Times: "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales offered a measured apology for his mistakes in the dismissal of eight United States attorneys, but said in testimony prepared for a Senate hearing on Tuesday that he had 'nothing to hide' and that none of the prosecutors were removed to influence the outcome of a case. . . .
"In his statement, Mr. Gonzales admitted he had made mistakes, but his contrition was limited largely to missteps in the treatment of prosecutors who were asked to resign. . . .
"In the last week, Mr. Gonzales, whose courteous but often uninformative appearances at past Congressional hearings have left Democrats complaining, has prepared for the hearing in practice sessions Monday through Saturday in the attorney general's conference room at Justice Department headquarters."
Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post with a new challenge for Gonzales: "The former Justice Department official who carried out the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year told Congress that several of the prosecutors had no performance problems and that a memo on the firings was distributed at a Nov. 27 meeting attended by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, a Democratic senator said yesterday.
"The statements to House and Senate investigators by Michael A. Battle, former director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, represent another potential challenge to the credibility of Gonzales, who has said that he never saw any documents about the firings and that he had 'lost confidence' in the prosecutors because of performance problems. . . .
"Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary panel, immediately criticized Gonzales's planned testimony as falling short of answering key questions about the firings.
"'The attorney general has offered another in a series of contradictory statements about the mass firing of U.S. attorneys,' Leahy said. 'It has been impossible to discern the truth in this matter based on the shifting explanations and changing stories coming out of the Justice Department and White House.'"
But as I first suggested in my March 14 column, it's quite possible that Gonzales is largely a diversion distracting the public from elements of the prosecutor-purge scandal that lead to the White House. And as I wrote in my March 26 column, it's no secret in Washington that Gonzales is not an autonomous agent. His entire career has been as an enabler of George Bush.
Richard B. Schmitt, writing in the Los Angeles Times, now takes this one step further, laying out a scenario in which Gonzales is so detached and incurious that it's unlikely he has anything of value to offer investigators.
"In public statements about the mess, Gonzales has said that he was only vaguely aware of the planned terminations, which have caused a political firestorm, and that the real work of identifying those who were to be fired was done by his chief of staff.
"But he also has acknowledged attending a number of meetings about the issue, raising the question about how he could not know more about what was happening," Schmitt writes.
"The distance from details, and disclaiming of responsibility, is not unusual for Gonzales based on a review of his public comments about issues inside the Justice Department," Schmitt concludes.
In fact, he adds: "Gonzales has also left observers periodically confounded by comments he has made about other issues in which he apparently rejected bedrock principles of American law, leaving people to wonder whether he had ever deeply thought about the issues."
Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor write for McClatchy Newspapers: "For Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, his testimony Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee is all about him, and whether he can restore enough credibility to keep his job.
"But many of the Democrats who control Congress and the committee have already written off Gonzales. They're less interested in his fate than in whether his testimony can open a back door into the White House as they investigate the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
"Their keenest interest is in how much influence President Bush's political adviser Karl Rove exercised in the firings, and why. . . .
"On Thursday, [Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.] sent Gonzales a list of 10 questions he plans to ask. Half focused on Rove, communications with the White House and allegations of voter fraud - a topic, frequently raised by Republican activists, that Rove and his deputies have acknowledged that they referred to the Justice Department. Democrats view Republican attempts to combat 'voter fraud' as efforts to suppress the turnout of people who are likely to vote Democratic, such as the poor and minorities. . . .
"Disclosure last week that the Republican National Committee can't find records of e-mails that Rove sent on his RNC e-mail account before 2005 fueled the intrigue. Democrats suspect that Rove and other White House officials discussed the U.S. attorneys on their non-White House e-mail accounts."
This USA Today editorial about the attorney general's prepared statement suggests that he "seems to miss the central point: Did he fulfill his duty to keep the nation's most powerful prosecutors independent, or did he allow them to become a political extension of the White House?"
The editorial proposes some excellent questions for the attorney general:
"* Which time were you telling the truth? . . .
"* If you weren't involved, why not? . . .
"* Why was David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, fired? . . .
"* What role did the president's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, play? . . .
"* Have you ever given President Bush advice he didn't like?"About Iglesias
The extent of President Bush's personal involvement in the purge also remains a mystery. The first evidence that it may have been substantial emerged over the weekend, as Mike Gallagher wrote in the Albuquerque Journal: "Former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was fired after Sen. Pete Domenici, who had been unhappy with Iglesias for some time, made a personal appeal to the White House, the Journal has learned. . . .
"In the spring of 2006, Domenici told Gonzales he wanted Iglesias out.
"Gonzales refused. He told Domenici he would fire Iglesias only on orders from the president.
"At some point after the election last Nov. 6, Domenici called Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove, and told him he wanted Iglesias out and asked Rove to take his request directly to the president.
"Domenici and Bush subsequently had a telephone conversation about the issue.
"The conversation between Bush and Domenici occurred sometime after the election but before the firings of Iglesias and six other U.S. attorneys were announced on Dec. 7.
"Iglesias' name first showed up on a Nov. 15 list of federal prosecutors who would be asked to resign. It was not on a similar list prepared in October."
White House spokesmen directed reporters to Bush's mid-March statement about his involvement: "I did receive complaints about U.S. attorneys," he said at the time. "I specifically remember one time I went up to the Senate and senators were talking about the U.S. attorneys. I don't remember specific names being mentioned, but I did say to Al last year -- you're right, last fall -- I said, have you heard complaints about AGs, I have -- I mean, U.S. attorneys, excuse me -- and he said, I have. But I never brought up a specific case nor gave him specific instructions."
But on careful review, that's about as definitive as Bush's later insistence that there was " no indication that anybody did anything improper."
Or, as a reader of the Talking Points Memo blog suggests: "So a call from the President to the Attorney General in which he says, 'Pete Domenici called me this morning, says we gotta do something about that U.S. Attorney in New Mexico, Iglesias. Not doing his jobs, not bringing cases fast enough -- can you look into that, see what needs to be done?' That would fit within the White House denial."Poll Watch
Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta write for washingtonpost.com: "Two thirds of Americans, including a narrow majority of Republicans, see political motivations behind last year's firings of eight chief federal prosecutors. . . .
"With widespread public skepticism about the firings and low approval of how the attorney general has handled the matter -- 24 percent approved in this poll -- 45 percent of Americans said the attorney general should lose his job over the issue. Fewer, 39 percent, said he should remain in place; 16 percent expressed no opinion."
Here are those results.E-Mail Watch
Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Karl Rove's lawyer on Friday dismissed the notion that President Bush's chief political adviser intentionally deleted his own e-mails from a Republican-sponsored server, saying Rove believed the communications were being preserved in accordance with the law.
"The issue arose because the White House and Republican National Committee have said they may have lost e-mails from Rove and other administration officials. Democratically chaired congressional committees want those e-mails for their probe of the firings of eight federal prosecutors. . . .
"Any e-mails Rove deleted were the type of routine deletions people make to keep their inboxes orderly, Luskin said. He said Rove had no idea the e-mails were being deleted from the server, a central computer that managed the e-mail."
But Luskin's assertion would appear to contradict what House Democrats have said RNC lawyers told them, which is that even after the RNC stopped automatically deleting Rove's old e-mail in August 2004, all of his e-mail (not just some) continued to vanish.
Massimo Calabresi writes in Time: "The White House is hoping this new controversy -- one potentially with real legal and not just political consequences -- will fade fast. . . .
"The lost e-mails allow Democrats to hint darkly of a cover-up even if nothing nefarious was lost, placing the Republicans in the uncomfortable position of having to prove a negative -- that there was nothing important in e-mails they can't produce."
White House spokesmen last week insisted that aides received only one paragraph of instructions about the importance of preserving official e-mails and using the official e-mail servers -- compared to several pages about how important it was to keep overtly political communication off the official e-mail servers to avoid Hatch Act violations.
That one crystal-clear paragraph (see my April 12 column) was actually supplemented with memos and briefings.
Tom Hamburger writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Karl Rove and other White House employees were cautioned in employee manuals, memos and briefings to carefully save any e-mails that might discuss official matters even if those messages came from private e-mail accounts, the White House disclosed Friday. . . .
"Redacted copies of White House employee manuals were shown to reporters late Friday at the White House press office on condition that they not be removed from the premises.
"The documents included a memorandum from then-White House General Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, who is now attorney general, cautioning employees that 'any e-mail relating to official business . . . qualifies as a presidential record.'
"The instructions dwell on the importance of separating political from official acts. But they also explain that all e-mail sent 'to your official account is automatically archived as if it were a presidential record.' The manual adds: 'If you happen to receive an e-mail on a personal account which otherwise qualifies as a presidential record, it is your duty to insure that it is saved as such by printing it out and saving it or by forwarding it to your White House e-mail account,' the manual said."FIVE MILLION MISSING E-MAILS?
Last week, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington issued a report claiming that as many as five million White House e-mails could be missing due to an unrelated archiving problem.
Couldn't possibly be true, right? Well, the White House on Friday didn't deny it.
TPM Muckraker has the transcript of Friday morning's press gaggle, in which Dan Perino explained that "there was a conversion sometime between 2002 and 2003 to convert people that were using Lotus Notes when we first arrived to Microsoft Outlook. . . .
"I don't have a specific number for you. Again, I wouldn't rule out that there were a potential 5 million emails lost, but we'll see if we can get to you. If it was 5 million, I think that, again, out of 1,700 people using email every day, again, there was no intent to have lost them."Enter Abramoff
Scot J. Paltrow writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The Justice Department's Public Integrity Section is investigating connections between disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the White House, a probe that may be affected by missing White House emails.
"Lawyers involved in the case said that beginning more than a year ago, federal prosecutors and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents interviewed Mr. Abramoff and other cooperating witnesses at length about numerous contacts between Mr. Abramoff and White House officials, including presidential adviser Karl Rove.
"One focus of the Justice inquiry has been whether Mr. Abramoff obtained official favors in exchange for giving Bush administration officials expensive meals and tickets to sporting events and concerts. The White House has denied this. . . .
"People with direct knowledge of the investigation say that all of Mr. Abramoff's email correspondence was preserved and turned over to prosecutors, including those with the White House. But it isn't clear to what extent Mr. Rove and others in the White House may have exchanged messages among themselves, or with others outside, pertaining to Mr. Abramoff, and whether any of these may have been erased. The White House didn't respond to requests for comment. . . .
"One individual debriefed at length by prosecutors and the FBI about Mr. Abramoff's White House relations is Susan Ralston, who was Mr. Abramoff's executive assistant before taking on a similar job for Mr. Rove at the White House. She resigned her White House job in October 2006 after disclosures that she had been the main go-between for the two men."Where's the Strategic Vision?
Retired Marine general John J. Sheehan, one of three generals known to have turned down the job of " war czar", explains his decision in a Washington Post op-ed: "What I found in discussions with current and former members of this administration is that there is no agreed-upon strategic view of the Iraq problem or the region. . . .
"We cannot 'shorthand' this issue with concepts such as the 'democratization of the region' or the constant refrain by a small but powerful group that we are going to 'win,' even as 'victory' is not defined or is frequently redefined."
Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon on the gulf between the "small but powerful group" (and its pundit enablers) and public opinion.Cheney on 'Face the Nation'
Vice President Cheney spoke to Bob Schieffer on CBS News's Face the Nation this weekend. Here is the transcript. It was a wide-ranging interview.
Appropriately enough, Schieffer repeatedly asked about the administration's loss of credibility. Cheney's answers were bizarre.
"Q Let me ask you, because it leads me to this question, Mr. Vice President, you have, throughout this war, been optimistic about how things were going. Two years ago, you told Larry King, 'I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.' What did you base that on at that time? Because there were many people had a totally different view of what was happening, and it brings us down to where we are now. I mean, why should people believe you now when so many times in the past, statements from this administration have proved to be incorrect?
"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, partly we have to respond to questions from the press, and we do the best we can with what we know at the time. . . .
"Q We're back now with Vice President Cheney. Mr. Vice President, we were talking about credibility. The Attorney General is going to Capitol Hill this week to testify before the Judiciary Committee. There are questions about whether he has been truthful about what's been going on in his Justice Department. Again, it comes back to this question of credibility. We have the Attorney General; we have optimistic statements about the war in Iraq; your own top aide, Scooter Libby, was convicted of perjury. Does this administration have a credibility problem?
"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't think so, Bob. I think, obviously, we've got issues we need to work through. The Attorney General will be doing that this week, with respect to the U.S. attorney question, and the Justice Department. But you do the best you can with what you've got, obviously."
So doing "the best you can" sometimes means lying? I don't get it. And is he saying the press shouldn't ask such impertinent questions?Not Isolated
"Q Do you feel you have become more isolated?
"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't think so. I spend as much time as I can, get out and do other things -- at home in Wyoming, or yesterday I managed to go shopping with my daughter for a birthday present for granddaughters."Some Friend
Cheney also said he hadn't spoken to his good friend and trusted lieutenant Scooter Libby since Libby was found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice -- nearly six weeks ago!
"Well, there hasn't been occasion to do so," Cheney told Schieffer.
Dumbfounded, Schieffer asked again.
"I just -- I haven't had occasion to do that," Cheney repeated.
Is Cheney really as heartless as that sounds? Or is he lying? Or does he have his own private or legal reasons for not talking to Libby?Cheney's Speech
Peter Baker writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney accused congressional Democrats today of reviving the 'far-left platform' of George McGovern from the 1970s, an agenda that he said would raise taxes, declare surrender in an overseas war and leave the United States exposed to new dangers."
Here's the text of the speech. It's a doozy.
Dick Polman blogs for the Philadelphia Inquirer that Cheney's argument "only serves to demonstrate, yet again, that he is out of touch with American public opinion -- because, far from taking a hard left turn, the Democrats are taking a stance that precisely mirrors centrist sentiment in the electorate. . . .
"[I]f Cheney truly believes that he and Bush represent the center, and that the Democrats are merely doing the bidding of the 'hard left,' perhaps he should take that same Friday speech and deliver it in front of a cross-section of citizens, a moderate audience in a swing state. At least that way, he'd see whether the applause lines that galvanized the Heritage Foundation really work outside the bubble."Cheney's Other Interview
Before his speech on Friday, Cheney spoke to Chicago radio hosts Don and Roma Wade.
Among the questions:
"Q I'm wondering, Mr. Vice President, whether some politicians are -- they prefer to make political points rather than winning the war. . . .
"Q We deeply appreciate your steadfastness in emphasizing the importance of this war on terrorism to our public. . . .
"Q Mr. Vice President, I'm so glad we had a chance to talk to you. You act out of principle, not polls, and I know that a lot of Americans appreciate that. Thanks for coming to Chicago."Denver Three Watch
Dan Frosch writes in the New York Times: "Lawyers for two men charged with illegally ejecting two people from a speech by President Bush in 2005 are arguing that the president's staff can lawfully remove anyone who expresses points of view different from his."GAO Watch
The Washington Post editorial board writes: "The uproar over fired U.S. attorneys and missing White House e-mails has crowded out attention to another matter of concern: the campaign briefing that White House political aide J. Scott Jennings provided to political appointees at the General Services Administration. This episode raises some obvious questions: Were similar presentations made to other government officials on government property during business hours? Did Mr. Jennings clear this practice with the White House counsel's office -- whether it was a one-time deal or part of a series? Did that office consider whether the briefings complied with the Hatch Act, which regulates the political activity of federal government employees? Does it believe Mr. Jennings's briefing was appropriate?
"We've been asking the White House these questions, starting 14 days ago. We haven't gotten any answers; the press office says that it's 'working on' providing answers but can't say when or even whether they will be provided."Cartoon Watch
Washington Post humorist (and sage) Gene Weingarten writes in his Sunday column: "Once upon a time, no one criticized George W. Bush. That was about five years ago, when questioning the president was unpatriotic. Then, gradually, liberals began to voice grievances, then moderate Democrats, then liberal Republicans, then moderate Republicans, and now we're seeing uber-conservative hammerheads such as Bob Novak and Rich Lowry using the I-words: 'inept' and 'incompetent.' Foreign heads of state have started to take potshots at Bush when he's standing right next to them, during photo ops."
So what's next? Weingarten's fertile mind imagines anti-Bush horoscopes, weather reports . . . and children's stories.
" . . . Then out of the box came Thing One and Thing Two,
"And Sally and I did not know what to do!
"They knocked Sally down, and she fell on her tush.
"'I'm Cheney,' said one. Said the other, 'I'm Bush.'
"They attacked our four feet, with stompings and bites.
"First they chewed on our lefts, then they trampled our rights!
"They found Mother's money and flushed it away!
"If we go to college, NOW how will we pay?
"They smashed up our dishes, our toys and our bikes!
"Our globe was on fire, and the golf bag Dad likes!
"The mess they were making was torture to see,
"'Torture is good,' they told Sally and me . . . . "