Grilling Gonzales

The day of the Alberto Gonzales hearing has finally arrived, and I regret that I won’t be able to stay home and watch. Slate has a list of questions the Attorney General is likely to be asked. Answers — or nonanswers — will be filled in as the hearings progress. If you want to follow along on the web, that’s one option. I’m sure other bloggers will be liveblogging. I may be able to catch part of it.

More Gonzales-related links:

Greg Gordon, McClatchy Newspapers: “Campaign against alleged voter fraud fuels political tempest.”

Peter Baker, Washington Post: “On the Hill, Gonzales Gets His Chance at Redemption: Insiders Say Loyalty Bought Him Time

David Iglesias, Steven Calabresi, Ron Klain, and Jeffrey Rosen, New York Times: “A Dozen Questions for Alberto Gonzales

Mark Follman, Salon: “The U.S. Attorney Scandal Gets Dirty

Update: Home again for a little while. There’s good running commentary at TPM Muckraker.

Two Editorials

From an editorial in today’s New York Times:

We have long suspected that there is no one in charge of the Iraq war. How else can you explain four years of multifront failures, including President Bush’s most recent plan to order even more American troops to risk their lives there without demanding any political sacrifice or even compromise from Iraq’s leaders? So we were not surprised to hear that White House officials are looking for someone to oversee both Iraq and the faltering Afghanistan war— and not surprised that they were having a tough time filling the job.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told The Times he’d decided that “what we need is someone with a lot of stature within the government who can make things happen.” He said that top official would have the authority to “call any cabinet secretary and get problems resolved, fast.”

As Keith Olbermann observed last week –that sounds like the Commander-in-Chief’s job.

Peter Baker and Thomas Ricks wrote in the Washington Post last week that at least three retired generals have turned down the job.

“The very fundamental issue is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going,” said retired Marine Gen. John J. “Jack” Sheehan, a former top NATO commander who was among those rejecting the job. Sheehan said he believes that Vice President Cheney and his hawkish allies remain more powerful within the administration than pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq. “So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, ‘No, thanks,’ ” he said.

There’s another good editorial in tomorrow’s New York Times:

The more we learn about the White House’s purge of United States attorneys, the more a single thread runs through it: the Bush administration’s campaign to transform the minor problem of voter fraud into a supposed national scourge. …

..,Last week, we learned that the administration edited a government-ordered report on voter fraud to support its fantasy. The original version concluded that among experts “there is widespread but not unanimous agreement that there is little polling place fraud.” But the publicly released version said, “There is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud.” It’s hard to see that as anything but a deliberate effort to mislead the public….

…charges of voter fraud are a key component of the Republican electoral strategy. If the public believes there are rampant efforts to vote fraudulently, or to register voters improperly, it increases support for measures like special voter ID’s, which work against the poor, the elderly, minorities and other disenfranchised groups that tend to support Democrats. Claims of rampant voter fraud also give the administration an excuse to cut back prosecutions of the real problem: officials who block voters’ access to the polls.

There is one big catch, as Eric Lipton and Ian Urbina reported in The Times last week. After a five-year crackdown, the Justice Department has not turned up any evidence that voter fraud actually is a problem. Only 86 people were convicted of voter fraud crimes as of last year — most of them Democrats and many on trivial, trumped-up charges.

The Bush administration was so determined to pursue this phantom scourge that it deported a legal Florida resident back to his native Pakistan for mistakenly filling out a voter registration card when he renewed his driver’s license. And it may well have decided to fire most of the eight federal prosecutors because they would not play along.

Worse than Nixon, I tell you.


The big news coming out of the Senate Judiciary grilling of Kyle Sampson — which began this morning and is still going on at 4:40 EST — is that Sampson’s testimony, um, differs from earlier statements of Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales claimed not to have been involved in meetings about the attorney general firing. Editor & Publisher has details.

I haven’t been home to watch the entire hearing. From what I did see and hear, I am struck by the apparent casualness with which Sampson and other staffers considered the firing of U.S. attorneys. Sampson’s testimony makes it seem that the original idea to fire U.S. attorneys was made, in 2005, for no particular reason except that they could. Sampson, who was more or less in charge of the Purge Project, didn’t bother to keep a file (so he says) to document who made decisions and why. It seems most of the written record of this episode was in emails drizzled about on White House and RNC servers. No files, no system, says Sen. Schumer; It seems ad hoc, it seems records weren’t kept.

I bet this poor kid keeps records in the future, assuming he ever gets a job again.

Paul Kiel has a blow-by-blow live blog of the hearing, here.

Loose Lips

D. Kyle Sampson is scheduled to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee today. The Senate might also vote on the Iraq War “emergency” appropriations bill. If there are any significant developments I will post about them as quickly as I can.

First — Sampson and the U.S. Attorney scandal. Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in today’s Washington Post:

The attorney general’s former chief of staff plans to testify today that other Justice Department officials knew about the “origins and timing” of the effort to fire eight U.S. attorneys, which began two years earlier in the White House, according to prepared testimony for a Congressional hearing.

But D. Kyle Sampson — who resigned earlier this month ahead of revelations that White House political officials helped direct the dismissals — also will tell the Senate Judiciary Committee that he “never sought to conceal or withhold material fact about this matter” while helping prepare witnesses for Congress. Lawmakers are seeking to determine whether top Justice Department officials misled them while testifying on the matter in recent months. …

… Sampson’s prepared remarks offer few clues about the role of Gonzales, who has sought to distance himself from his former chief of staff. Gonzales is under increasing pressure from lawmakers to step down for mishandling the firings and their aftermath.

The statement indicates that Sampson will emphasize the involvement of numerous other Justice officials in the dismissals — including Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty — while distancing Gonzales from the nitty-gritty details. Sampson’s statement also says that he “let the attorney general and the department down” by failing to better manage the political response to the firings, which he describes as an “ugly, undignified spectacle,” according to the statement.

Kevin Drum asks:

Gonzales has already told us he knew nothing about the two-year process to fire a bunch of U.S. Attorneys, and in this meeting he knew nothing about any of the specific grievances the USAs brought up. Sounds like a real hands-on kind of guy. What exactly does he think the job of Attorney General is all about?

It appears to me that Gonzales is still primarily George Bush’s attorney more than he is an attorney general. Instead of actually running the Justice Department, he has seemed more focused on enabling President Bush to do whatever he wants, which is the job he’s been doing for many years.

Stuart Taylor writes at Atlantic Monthly:

Gonzales was plucked by then-Gov. Bush of Texas from a big law firm where he was a relatively undistinguished partner. As the governor’s counsel, he sent Bush superficial memos that cleared the way for executions of more than 50 death-row inmates by dismissing their clemency petitions, while sometimes ignoring evidence of ineffective counsel, mitigating circumstances, and even possible innocence. His 20-some judicial opinions as a Bush appointee on the Texas Supreme Court were unimpressive, as have been his public performances as White House counsel and attorney general. People outside the administration who have tried to engage him in serious discourse about complex issues sometimes come away shocked by the superficiality of his knowledge and the shallowness of his analysis.

As White House counsel from 2001 through 2004, Gonzales had his fingerprints on Bush’s most grandiose and insupportable claims of power in the war on terrorism. These included Bush’s claim of virtually unlimited power to imprison for years, incommunicado, without real judicial review, anyone in the world whom he labeled an “enemy combatant.”

Gonzales also implicitly approved the infamous August 1, 2002, Justice Department legal opinion asserting that Bush had the authority to abrogate federal criminal laws and treaty obligations and to order (if he chose) wholesale use of torture in wartime interrogations.

David Kirkpatrick and Jim Rutenberg write in today’s New York Times that Gonzales was, perhaps, not as disengaged from the U.S. Attorney firings as Sampson might claim. And, of course, Karl Rove played a critical role also.

Almost every Wednesday afternoon, advisers to President Bush gather to strategize about putting his stamp on the federal courts and the United States attorneys’ offices.

The group meets in the Roosevelt Room and includes aides to the White House counsel, the chief of staff, the attorney general and Karl Rove, who also sometimes attends himself. Each of them signs off on every nomination.

Mr. Rove, a top adviser to the president, takes charge of the politics. As caretaker to the administration’s conservative allies, Mr. Rove relays their concerns, according to several participants in the Wednesday meetings. And especially for appointments of United States attorneys, he manages the horse trading.

“What Karl would say is, ‘Look, if this senator who has been working with the president on the following things really wants this person and we think they are acceptable, why don’t we give the senator what he wants?’ ” said one former administration official. “ ‘You know, we stiffed him on that bill back there.’ ” [emphasis added]

Further into the Kirkpatrick & Rutenberg article we find:

In New Jersey, Mr. Rove helped arrange the nomination of a major Bush campaign fund-raiser who had little prosecutorial experience.

That would be Christopher J. Christie.

Mr. Christie has brought public corruption charges against prominent members of both parties, but his most notable investigations have stung two Democrats, former Gov. James E. McGreevey and Senator Robert Menendez. When word of the latter inquiry leaked to the press during the 2006 campaign, Mr. Menendez sought to dismiss it by tying Mr. Christie to Mr. Rove, calling the investigation “straight out of the Bush-Rove playbook.” (Mr. McGreevey resigned after admitting to having an affair with a male aide and the Menendez investigation has not been resolved.)

Yesterday’s “document dump” of emails included one from Kyle Sampson with “RE: Draft response to Reid/Durbin/Schumer/Murray letter re Cummins-Griffin” in the subject line. Sampson had prepared a statement to the Senators claiming that Karl Rove was not involved in the appointment of Rove’s aide Tim Griffin to replace U.S. Attorney “Bud” Cummins. We now have copious evidence that Rove was very much involved. The Office of the White House Counsel signed off on Sampson’s “testimony.” Paul Kiel at TPM Muckraker has more to say about this here and here.

Righties generally remain stuck on stupid — they’re still arguing that Presidents can hire and fire U.S. attorneys whenever they like, for any reason, so what’s the big deal? [Update: See Josh Marshall on this point.] Stuart Taylor at the Atlantic (link above) responds to this:

As for the U.S. attorneys, there is a world of difference between firing such a political appointee for 1) being a Democrat; 2) failing to press the president’s law enforcement agenda; 3) overstaying his or her welcome in a job that the White House wants for a political favorite; 4) prosecuting Republican lawmakers; or 5) failing to bring election-fraud prosecutions against Democrats on a timetable designed to help Republicans at the polls.

The first three are standard operating procedure. The last two—if they happened—would be unethical and arguably illegal. A minimally competent attorney general would instantly appreciate the difference. Did Gonzales? Perhaps. But the succession of misleading and contradictory statements from him and his aides—which may further weaken the presidency by fueling congressional demands for testimony by White House officials—inspire no confidence. Nor do Gonzales’s comments (as reported by Newsweek) to three senators who visited his office to discuss the matter: “Why do I have to prove anything to you?” And “everyone [fired] was in the bottom tier.” In fact, some had glowing performance evaluations.

Glenn Greenwald adds

Much of the U.S. attorneys scandal has focused, as it should, on the question of whether the firings were motivated by various prosecutors’ refusal to pursue partisan-motivated but frivolous cases (or to suppress valid investigations for partisan reasons). But it is true that every administration has the right to prioritize the types of prosecutions which U.S. attorneys ought to pursue. And the DOJ e-mails that have been released reveal much about the unbelievably misplaced investigative priorities of the Bush administration.

In a time when we are supposedly facing the gravest and most epic War Ever to Save our Very Civilization, they are demanding that scarce law enforcement resources be squandered on the pettiest though still quite invasive and liberty-infringing matters. In Reason, Radley Balko has a great review of some of these issues.

The Radley Balko article cited by Glenn is a solid indictment of DoJ mismanagement under the Bush Administration, bringing up several critical issues (such as wiretapping) other than the U.S. Attorneys. See also “Prosecutors Assail Gonzales During Meeting” and “The Myth of Voter Fraud.”

Doing Business

Lurita Alexis Doan, Chief Administrator of the General Services Administration, says on the GSA web site that she hopes to meet “President Bush’s challenge for all federal agencies to find new and smarter ways to do business.”

That business is, apparently, electing Republicans.

Scott Higham and Robert O’Harrow Jr. write in today’s Washington Post:

Witnesses have told congressional investigators that the chief of the General Services Administration and a deputy in Karl Rove’s political affairs office at the White House joined in a videoconference earlier this year with top GSA political appointees, who discussed ways to help Republican candidates.

With GSA Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan and up to 40 regional administrators on hand, J. Scott Jennings, the White House’s deputy director of political affairs, gave a PowerPoint presentation on Jan. 26 of polling data about the 2006 elections.

When Jennings concluded his presentation to the GSA political appointees, Doan allegedly asked them how they could “help ‘our candidates’ in the next elections,” according to a March 6 letter to Doan from Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Waxman said in the letter that one method suggested was using “targeted public events, such as the opening of federal facilities around the country.”

Doan is scheduled to testify to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday. Doan and others may have violated the Hatch Act, which forbids executive-branch employees from using their positions for partisan political purposes.

(That’s Henry Waxman’s committee, the same one that heard the testimony of Valerie Plame. I just wanted to point that out to underscore why it was so important to elect a Democratic majority to Congress in the midterms. It wasn’t because Democrats are perfect, because they aren’t, but turning control of committees over to Democrats makes investigation of the Bush Regime possible.)

The planned hearing is part of an expanding examination by Waxman’s committee of Doan’s tumultuous 10-month tenure as administrator of the GSA. The government’s leading procurement agency annually handles about $56 billion worth of federal contracts.

The committee is also expected to question Doan about her attempt to give a no-bid job to a friend and professional associate last summer. In addition, the committee plans to look at Waxman’s charge that Doan “intervened” in a troubled technology contract with Sun Microsystems that could cost taxpayers millions more than necessary.

Ah, yes. Bushies and cronyism. Together forever.

In the Senate, Doan is facing a similar line of questioning in letters from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). Also examining Doan are the GSA’s Office of Inspector General and the independent federal Office of Special Counsel, which investigates allegations of Hatch Act violations.

In several recent statements, Doan has said she did nothing wrong. She said her troubles are the result of retaliation by the inspector general over her efforts to rein in spending and balance the GSA budget. Doan, a wealthy former government contractor who sold her company before taking over the GSA last May, has hired three law firms and two media relations companies at her own expense to handle inquiries from the federal investigators and the news media.

“Ever since I made the decision to restore fiscal discipline to all divisions within GSA, I have had to face a series of personal attacks and charges,” Doan said in a March 7 statement.

Readers of the rightie e-rag Townhall are being told that Doan has been targeted by Waxman’s Witch Hunt because she dared to cut spending — you know that liberals are pro-spending — and because Doan canceled a $20,000 contract intended to “promote diversity.” The WaPo story mentions the contract and provides some information Townhall leaves out —

On July 25, two months after Doan took office, she took the unusual step of personally signing the no-bid arrangement with Diversity Best Practices and Business Women’s Network, firms then run by Fraser, to produce a report about GSA’s use of businesses owned by minorities or women. The GSA’s general counsel at the time, Alan R. Swendiman, told Waxman’s investigators he was “alarmed” that the project was not competitively bid.

“Fraser” is Edie Fraser, a Washington public relations executive with whom Doan has had a long business relationship and who helped Doan get the plum GSA position. It appears the contract was a quid pro quo.

The GSA general counsel “immediately and repeatedly” advised Doan to terminate the contract. When Doan refused, the general counsel directed another GSA official to do the terminating. Somehow these little details escaped the attention of Townhall.

The J. Scott Jennings, the “deputy in Karl Rove’s political affairs office” mentioned above, was also instrumental in getting one of Rove’s aides, Tim Griffin, a U.S. Attorney job. Among the items discussed during the videoconference were how they could keep Nancy Pelosi from attending the opening of a new courthouse in her district.

Karl Rove and various Republican politicians apparently pushed U.S. attorneys to manufacture charges against Democrats to help Republicans win elections. And now this. What do you want to bet that similar shenanigans are going on in several other federal agencies?

Pass the popcorn.

“Republican Holy Office of the Inquisition”

Sidney Blumenthal:

In the U.S. attorneys scandal, Gonzales was an active though second-level perpetrator. While he gave orders, he also took orders. Just as his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, has resigned as a fall guy, so Gonzales would be yet another fall guy if he were to resign. He was assigned responsibility for the purge of U.S. attorneys but did not conceive it. The plot to transform the U.S. attorneys and ipso facto the federal criminal justice system into the Republican Holy Office of the Inquisition had its origin in Karl Rove’s fertile mind.

There’s more evidence of political manipulation of justice this morning. Carol D. Leonnig writes for the Washington Post:

The leader of the Justice Department team that prosecuted a landmark lawsuit against tobacco companies said yesterday that Bush administration political appointees repeatedly ordered her to take steps that weakened the government’s racketeering case.

Sharon Y. Eubanks said Bush loyalists in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales’s office began micromanaging the team’s strategy in the final weeks of the 2005 trial, to the detriment of the government’s claim that the industry had conspired to lie to U.S. smokers.

She said a supervisor demanded that she and her trial team drop recommendations that tobacco executives be removed from their corporate positions as a possible penalty. He and two others instructed her to tell key witnesses to change their testimony. And they ordered Eubanks to read verbatim a closing argument they had rewritten for her, she said.

“The political people were pushing the buttons and ordering us to say what we said,” Eubanks said. “And because of that, we failed to zealously represent the interests of the American public.”

If you don’t remember the tobacco case, here’s a June 8, 2005 article by Ms. Leonnig for background. She wrote then,

After eight months of courtroom argument, Justice Department lawyers abruptly upset a landmark civil racketeering case against the tobacco industry yesterday by asking for less than 8 percent of the expected penalty.

As he concluded closing arguments in the six-year-old lawsuit, Justice Department lawyer Stephen D. Brody shocked tobacco company representatives and anti-tobacco activists by announcing that the government will not seek the $130 billion that a government expert had testified was necessary to fund smoking-cessation programs. Instead, Brody said, the Justice Department will ask tobacco companies to pay $10 billion over five years to help millions of Americans quit smoking.

Steve Soto remarked (June 7, 2005):

Well, all those campaign contributions taken by Bush/Cheney (nearly $260,000 in 2000 and 2004) and the GOP from the tobacco industry over the years finally bought a $120 billion payday for Big Tobacco when the Alberto Gonzales Justice Department shocked the industry and anti-smoking advocates alike today by scuttling the government’s own litigation.

Remember when I said of the U.S. Attorney scandal, “this is huge“? If clear ties to President Bush are established, this issue has the potential of putting impeachment back on Nancy Pelosi’s to-do list.

Back to today’s article by Ms. Leonnig:

Yesterday was the first time that any of the government lawyers on the case spoke at length publicly about what they considered high-level interference by Justice officials.

Eubanks, who retired from Justice in December 2005, said she is coming forward now because she is concerned about what she called the “overwhelming politicization” of the department demonstrated by the controversy over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Lawyers from Justice’s civil rights division have made similar claims about being overruled by supervisors in the past.

Pay close attention to this part:

Eubanks said Congress should not limit its investigation to the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys.

“Political interference is happening at Justice across the department,” she said. “When decisions are made now in the Bush attorney general’s office, politics is the primary consideration. . . . The rule of law goes out the window.”

In its defense, the Justice Department explains it conducted its own internal investigation and cleared itself of wrongdoing. The JD also says the decision to pull back on the case was vindicated last year when a U.S. district judge said “she could not order the monetary penalty proposed by the government.” So they have an excuse for reducing the amount of damages sought. But changing testimony? Weakening the case?

The political appointees who allegedly interfered with the prosecution were “then-Associate Attorney General Robert D. McCallum, then-Assistant Attorney General Peter Keisler and Keisler’s deputy at the time, Dan Meron.” McCallum is now the U.S. ambassador to Australia

The Clinton Justice Department brought the unprecedented civil suit against the country’s five largest tobacco companies in 1999. President Bush disparaged the tobacco case while campaigning in 2000. After Bush took office, some officials expressed initial doubts about the government’s ability to fund the prosecution, Justice’s largest.

Eubanks said McCallum, Keisler and Meron largely ignored the case until it became clear that the government might win. She recalled that “things began to get really tense” after McCallum read news reports in April 2005 that one government expert, professor Max H. Bazerman of Harvard Business School, would argue that tobacco officials who engaged in fraud could be removed from their corporate posts. Eubanks said she received an angry call from McCallum on the day the news broke.

“How could you put that in there?” she recalled him saying. “We’re not going to be pursuing that.”

Afterward, McCallum, Keisler and Meron told Eubanks to approach other witnesses about softening their testimony, Eubanks said.

Yesterday Bob Barr, of all people, appeared on CNN blasting the Bush Administration’s apparent interference with the justice system. From Think Progress, which has the video:

Barr blasted the White House, saying “the integrity of the Department of Justice is being used as a political football by the administration to prove who’s the toughest hombre in all this.” Rather than fighting accountability, Barr said, “the administration really ought to be going out of its way to do what prior administrations have done, such as the Bush 1 administration and Reagan administrations, and that is take whatever steps are necessary to assure the American people that the integrity of our justice system has not been compromised.”

Last year Barr left the GOP to join the Libertarian Party. One wonders what the Bushies/GOP did to him to piss him off.

Action Alert

Make a Phone Call for the Constitution

Emails and faxes are good, too.

Update: ABC News —

A Democratic-led congressional panel defied President George W. Bush on Wednesday and authorized legal orders to force several White House aides to testify under oath about the firing of eight U.S. prosecutors.

Subpoenas! Here’s the news release from the House Judiciary Committee.

Judiciary Subcommittee Authorizes Chairman Conyers to Issue Subpoenas in US Attorney Investigation

(Washington, DC)- Today, the House Judiciary Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee (CAL) voted to authorize the full committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) to issue subpoenas for current and former White House and Justice Department officials Karl Rove, Harriet Miers, William Kelley, Scott Jennings and Kyle Sampson, as well as documents that the Committee has not yet received.

“The White House’s offer provides nothing more than conversations. It does not allow this Committee to get the information we need without transcripts or oaths,” Conyers said. “This motion allows the Committee to pursue good faith negotiations. We are continuing our talks with the White House, along with the Senate, but we must protect the interest of the Congress and the American people by maintaining the option to move forward with our investigation with or without continued cooperation from the Administration.”

“We have worked toward voluntary cooperation, but we have to prepare for the possibilty that the White House will continue to hide the truth,” said CAL Subcommittee Chairwoman Linda Sánchez. “This Congress respects White House prerogatives as a safeguard for the internal deliberations on the legitimate creation of policy, but they are not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. There must be accountability.”

The motion authorizes the Chairman to issue subpoenas at his discretion for the officials to appear before the Committee relating to the ongoing investigation. It also authorizes Conyers to subpoena additional documents relating to the issue – specifically, unredacted documents that have not previously been provided.

My understanding is that, if people receiving subpoenas refuse to comply, Congress could bring contempt of Congress charges. However, to do that Congress has to go through a (Bush appointed) U.S. attorney. Hmm.

Keep ‘Em Transparent

This afternoon some Democrats are meeting with White House counsel Fred Fielding to work out details for the testimony of Karl Rove et al. regarding the U.S. Attorney situation. Paul Kiel writes at TPM

According to MSNBC just now, White House counsel Fred Fielding offered Democrats interviews with Karl Rove and other White House officials, but the testimony would be unsworn, behind closed doors, and no transcript would be permitted.

The headline is “White House Makes An Offer Dems Can Refuse.”

Chuck Schumer is sayin’ no deal.

We could have a real fight on our hands, folks. Let’s hope.

Update: I understand House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers held a press conference and expressed his disappointment that the White House wasn’t more cooperative. The Judiciary Committee will begin the task of issuing subpoenas tomorrow morning.