A new batch of email messages and other documents released Friday by the Justice Department to congressional investigators provide conclusive evidence that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lied about his involvement in the politically motivated firing of eight United States attorneys last year. The glaring contradictions between the documents and Gonzales’ statements earlier this month point to a systematic cover-up of the White House role in the purge of the federal prosecutors.
Gonzales has had the closest ties to President Bush going back more than a decade, when he served as Bush’s counsel and then state supreme court judge during the latter’s stint as governor of Texas, continuing as Bush’s White House counsel and then as attorney general in Bush’s second term.
Included in the 283 pages of records released Friday is a memorandum of an hour-long meeting between Gonzales and his senior aides on November 27, 2006 to review the plan to fire seven of the eight US attorneys. The eighth had already been fired earlier in the year.
The meeting in the attorney general’s conference room included Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and four other senior Justice Department officials, including the aide who oversaw the firings, then-Chief of Staff D. Kyle Sampson. The firings went into effect on December 7, 2006, after they had been approved by Bush.
The meeting flatly contradicts Gonzales’ statements at a March 13, 2007 press conference at which he denied having played any direct or significant role in the firings or having had any detailed knowledge of them. “I was not involved in seeing any memos,” Gonzales said at the news conference, “was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.”
The attorney general claimed that the entire matter had been organized by Sampson and blamed his subordinate for misleading statements about the firings given by himself and other officials to Congress, claiming that Sampson had failed to properly keep the attorney general’s office informed. One day before the press conference, Sampson resigned his post as chief of staff.
Prior to the release of the latest series of documents on Friday, Sampson announced that he had agreed to testify under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee The hearing is set for Thursday, March 29. Sampson and his attorney have made it clear that they reject Gonzales’ version of events.
In a further sign of disarray, the Justice Department announced Friday that Monica Goodling, a senior counselor to Gonzales who worked with Sampson on the firings, had taken an indefinite personal leave from her job.
The crisis over the firings intensified last week with votes by the judiciary committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to authorize the issuing of subpoenas to compel Bush’s chief political aide Karl Rove, his former White House counsel Harriet Miers and other White House officials to testify under oath before the committees. Bush declared that he would refuse to allow them to testify under oath on the grounds of executive privilege.
The Democratic-controlled committees have made no decision whether to actually issue the subpoenas, and Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is seeking to broker a compromise along lines acceptable to the White House.
At least four Republican lawmakers have joined a growing chorus of Democrats demanding Gonzales’ resignation. The purge of the US attorneys was the major topic on the Sunday television interview programs. But Bush continues to publicly back his long-time political crony. He used his weekly Saturday radio address to reassert his support for the firings and for his attorney general.
Gonzales’ stonewalling and deception are aimed not only at saving his own position, but at protecting the White House and Bush himself. Last week it emerged that the thousands of pages of email messages and other documents turned over by the Justice Department to investigators contain a large gap. There is almost nothing from November 16 of last year to December 7, the day seven of the firings occurred.
One of the last emails prior to this period was sent by Sampson to then-White House counsel Miers, and includes a request that the White House approve the plan. In other words, the gap covers precisely a period when top White House officials, possibly including Bush himself, would have likely been heavily involved.
Justice Department officials initially claimed that the White House had little role in the plan to fire the prosecutors, merely approving it after it had been drawn up by Justice Department officials. But email messages and other documents released to Congress earlier this month showed that the plan had been hatched by White House officials, primarily Rove and Miers, soon after the beginning of Bush’s second term in 2005.
Then administration officials claimed the dismissals were prompted by performance problems with the prosecutors and denied any political motivation. That ruse collapsed when it emerged that most of the attorneys had excellent performance ratings and that Republican legislators had pressed the Justice Department to fire the New Mexico US attorney, and a second prosecutor, in Arkansas, was dismissed to make room for a former aide to Rove.
In fact, the firings reveal a calculated drive to eliminate US attorneys who balked at using their positions to protect corrupt Republican politicians, and pursue trumped-up, politically motivated prosecutions of Democrats, including some intended to reverse the results of elections.
One of the fired prosecutors, Carol Lam of San Diego, California, had successfully prosecuted Republican Congressman Randy Cunningham, who was convicted and jailed for accepting $2.4 million in bribes from military contractors She was planning to extend her investigation to a second Republican congressman.
Another fired prosecutor, David Iglesias of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was targeted after he refused to succumb to pressure from New Mexico’s Republican Senator Peter Domenici and Congresswoman Heather Wilson to file corruption charges against local Democratic politicians in advance of the November, 2006 elections. Wilson was facing a hotly contest race for reelection at the time.
Appearing on NBC television’s “Meet the Press” program on Sunday, Iglesias was asked whether he believed he had been removed for political reasons. “Absolutely, yes,” he replied.
John McKay of Seattle, Washington, another fired prosecutor, had resisted political pressure and concluded there was no basis for convening a federal grand jury to investigate vote fraud charges following the 2004 gubernatorial election, which was narrowly won by the Democratic candidate.
Paul K. Charlton of Arizona had been on the “retain” list compiled by then-Justice Department Chief of Staff Sampson in February of 2005, but, according to a McClatchy newspaper report, “by September of 2006—after it became clear that Charlton had launched an investigation of Rep. Rick Renzi [an Arizona Republican]—Sampson included the Arizona prosecutor on another list of US attorneys ‘we now should consider pushing out.’”
It is widely believed that US Attorney Margaret M. Chiara of Grand Rapids, Michigan was dismissed because of her personal opposition to the death penalty. The Bush administration and Gonzales have made a point of pursuing capital punishment in states, such as Michigan, with a history of opposition to the death penalty.
This type of purge of US attorneys in the middle of a presidential term has no precedent in US politics. It constitutes a serious attack on democratic rights, because the aim is to directly and completely subordinate the judicial system to the right-wing political aims and agenda of the executive branch, eliminating any independence of the court system and turning it into an apparatus for the suppression of all opposition.
It is a continuation and extension of the subversion of democratic processes seen in the attempt to reverse a presidential election through Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s trumped-up investigation and the ensuing impeachment of Bill Clinton, and the outright theft of the 2000 election.
The purge of federal prosecutors is, moreover, only one aspect of a far broader process of subordinating the Justice Department to the right-wing, anti-democratic agenda of the Bush administration. Last week, several veterans of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division testified at a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on the administration’s perversion of that division for the purpose of suppressing voting rights and manipulating elections.
“The political decision-making process that led to the dismissal of eight United States attorneys was standard practice in the Civil Rights Division years before these revelations,” said Joseph D. Rich, recently retired head of the division’s voting rights section. He and other witnesses testified that their superiors, who were political appointees, repeatedly blocked cases that might harm the electoral prospects of Republicans while prodding the staff to pursue cases that stood to damage Democrats’ prospects.
They focused on major voting case decisions over the last six years that have benefited the Republican Party. In particular, they cited a 2005 Georgia law that required voters to provide photo identification. Staff attorneys warned that the law would disenfranchise large number of voters, mostly poor and black, who did not possess driver’s licenses or other prescribed forms of identification. The staff objections were ignored, they said, and the Justice Department approved the Georgia ID rule 24 hours after the staff report was filed.
Rich and other witnesses also spoke of redistricting cases that bolstered the Republicans. Delays by political appointees in the Justice Department allowed “the Republican Party in Mississippi to obtain implementation of a congressional redistricting plan that had been drawn up at the party’s behest,” Rich said in congressional testimony.
He also said that unanimous staff objections to the Texas redistricting plan engineered by the now-deposed and indicted House majority leader, Tom DeLay, were ignored and the plan was approved with the support of Republican officials in the department.
In another major case, Bush loyalists in Attorney General Gonzales’ office intervened at the last minute to weaken a landmark racketeering lawsuit against tobacco companies and drastically reduce the financial penalties demanded by federal prosecutors. That was the testimony given last week by Sharon Y. Eubanks, the leader of the Justice Department team that prosecuted the 2005 case.
She said that a supervisor demanded in the final stages of the trial that she drop recommendations that tobacco executives be removed from their corporate positions for lying to the public, and that she lower the proposed penalty from $130 billion to $10 billion. She added that the supervisor ordered her to tell key witnesses to change their testimony.
To this point, Democratic leaders in Congress have assiduously avoided broaching more fundamental issues, such as the pervasive and illegal domestic spying conducted by the Bush administration and agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a unit of the Justice Department. Earlier this month, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a report revealing that the FBI, since the passage of the 2001 Patriot Act, has issued well over 150,000 “national security letters,” which enable the federal police agency to obtain personal data on hundreds of thousands of US citizens and residents without a court warrant.
The Democrats, who voted overwhelmingly to pass the Patriot Act and then supplied the needed votes to renew it, and who have rubber-stamped the domestic spying operations of the NSA, have no intention of conducting a serious struggle against the anti-democratic practices of the Justice Department, or pursuing those in the White House who have spearheaded its lawless actions.
To a large extent, the Democrats have seized on the scandal surrounding the US attorney firings to divert public attention from their collusion in the continuation and escalation of the US slaughter in Iraq, and to cover up their complicity in the overall assault on democratic rights and the moves toward police state forms of rule.