Documents Dumped, Questions Remain

I haven't perused all 3,000 or so documents released late last night by the Justice Department as part of its effort to stem the riptide of recriminations over the firing of eight federal prosecutors last December. But I feel like I have seen enough of the documents to make the following five points.

Point 1: The document dump in no way is going to make this controversy go away. In fact, it is much more likely to grow even larger as new questions are raised by the factual nuggets contained in the material. Why? Because even if you believe entirely the story that White House and Justice Department officials now are offering in their own defense the email exchanges between them, those that we have been able to see anyway, show a level of confusion and uncertainty that belies any claim that these dismissals were ordinary, typical and part of a routine function within the executive branch.

Point 2: Nothing I have seen is going to save Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales' job. The emails and memos I have seen portray him either to be completely out of touch with what was going on inside the Department of Justice or so politically savvy that he was able to protect himself in a way that beggars belief. There is no "smoking gun" document that makes Gonzales out to be a hero in all of this, no email or memo which makes it seem plausible that the process of firing the federal prosecutors was done in a way that would eventually protect the moving parties from the criticism they now are receiving.

Point 3: Even if you want to support Gonzales and his Justice Department officials, and even if you want to argue that the firings of the prosecutors was entirely correct, the emails and memos I have seen are untidy and embarrassing to most of those who sent and received them. There is also in them a creepy sense of control that Washington officials within the Department tried to exert over line prosecutors-- sending them draft resignation letters and press releases even. Now, I would not want my emails, professional or personal, to be dumped upon a cynical and critical world. But, still, these are and were government officials and they were, indeed, writing an official record of events. We have and had a right to expect better.

Point 4: Even as the Justice Department was dumping these documents upon the world, it was asserted an executive privilege to keep private other material and information that is relevant to the Congressional investigations now underway. You could argue, even, that the most interesting and relevant information is contained in the documents that were not turned over to Congress. This morning, for example, the Post reports that Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the CIA leak case and by most accounts one of the best U.S. Attorneys in the country, was put into a "middle" category of competence by Justice Department officials. Two of the fired prosecutors also were in that category. But the Post didn't get this information from the public domain-- the information was leaked to the paper by an anonymous source who apparently had or has access to the secret information. Just imagine what else may be out there.

Point 5: Since when does and should a federal prosecutor get in trouble for "chafing" at centralized Justice Department policies? That apparently was one of the criteria that was used to detemrine which federal prosecutors were vulnerable. As one document released last night established, several of the prosecutor who ultimately were fired were punished because they were too gung-ho about a particular law enforcement approach called LinX (short for Law Enforcement Information Exchange). Seems to me that push-back and input from line prosecutors, who after all are the ones in the trenches in the war on terror, is a good thing, a healthy thing, a thing to be nourished and not punished. But it wasn't.

President Bush this morning reportedly called his old buddy Gonzales to reaffirm his support for the beleauged Attorney General. He is going to need it. Things aren't going to get better at the Justice Department in the wake of the release of the documents they are going to get worse.

By Andrew Cohen |  March 20, 2007; 8:08 AM ET agag
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What have the 85 AGs who earned the title "loyal bushies" been doing to have garnered that title?

Posted by: ob | March 20, 2007 10:48 AM

See a tongue-in-cheek visual of Alberto & Karl starring in the new White House presentation of "Justice Is Served"

Posted by: Daniel DiRito | March 20, 2007 01:15 PM

Untidy and embarrassing indeed.

So embarrassing that the lockstep Fox News crowd seem to be slinking away from defending this-- just as all but two Republican senators slunk away from Bush on that hidden Patriot Act provision that guts constitutional checks and balances in the US Attorneys.

Posted by: Captain Jack | March 20, 2007 08:37 PM

This is a monumental waste of time - AG's serve at the pleasure of the president and can be removed at anytime for any reason. Clinton removed all 93 when he took office and if you believe that wasn't politically motivated I have a bridge to sell you. One could argue these were politically motivated but I would guess that most that are removed are likely for the most part removed for similar reasons. With a variety of serious issues facing our nation this is much ado about nothing. Besides, in my opinion if you compare Gonzales with Reno he pales in comparison to the incompetence of her tenure.

Posted by: John | March 20, 2007 09:23 PM

A column idea: Discussing how the congressional subpoena process works. (Seems timely)

Related: What role if any would the U.S. attorney for DC play? (The current U.S. attorney for DC is Jeffrey Taylor Gonzo's former Conselor at DOJ who was appointed on an interim basis by Gonzales on Sept. 29, 2006)

Posted by: JP2 | March 21, 2007 03:32 AM

John, Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Reagan all removed the U.S. attorneys en masse at the beginning of their terms.

That isn't what is at issue in this instance.

This central point of contention centers around the firing of 8 federal prosecutors, several of whom were involved, or had prosecuted public corruption cases involving GOP members during their terms as USAs. Related to this is the question of the White House political director's role in the ongoing review process of the USAs. These actions by this administration are unprecedented. You're talking about an unrelated issue.

Posted by: JP2 | March 21, 2007 03:41 AM

Seems like too many government employees have too much spare time.

Posted by: On the plantation | March 21, 2007 06:49 AM

I agree with JP2. John appears to have problem with fundamental logic chains.

1. The president may replace prosecutors, and this has been done widely at the beginning of terms.
2. The President and his aides do NOT hjave the right to interfere in federal investigations, or attempt to subvert them via threat or coercion, for personal or political reasons.
3. The reason people are looking closely at these firings is that they appear to be far closer to point 2, than point 1. Even more concerning, what did the prosecutors who were NOT dismissed have to do to avoid this outcome?

You see, John, the President is supposed to be above even the APPEARANCE of impropriety. You may remember that the Republican Congress pursued a variety of Presidential investigations, culminating in an impeachment trial, a few years ago.

Do you get it now? Good, you are probably almost as smart as my six year old grandson.

Posted by: Tim Connor | March 21, 2007 08:30 AM

John seems to have the GOP talking points down pat. I wonder how he does with reality?

There has not been a purge, en masse, of U.S. Attys in the middle of a presidential term in history, so don't give me this, "But Clinton did it..." garbage.

Janet Reno may not have been the best AG to ever hold office, but she never wrote memos recommending that the Geneva Conventions be dismissed as "quaint."

Nope, John, there are few administrations -- perhaps none -- that can match the spectacularly broad based incompetence that this one has demonstrated. But keep going with those GOP talking points.. you're doin' a heckuva job Johnnie.

Posted by: Nellie | March 21, 2007 09:17 AM

No, Clinton did it at the BEGINNING of his term, Nellie.

Let's see. It's not quite 10 in the morning, and Cohen admits to *not having read many of the docs*, like how many? Enough to extrapolate five rather huge generalities.

To add to Tim's points earlier.

1. Go back and look at the email flow from any situation going on among 3 or more people in your office a month later, and see how it looks to you. Better yet, let someone who wasn't part of the flow read it. Better yet, let that person be from a competitor's company to get a true appreciation of how any email trail looks after the fact.
2. Yes, public officials are supposed to be not only scrupulously honest, but must also not even show the appearance of impropriety. I agree with this. I question the ability of anyone to be able to meet this standard in today's journalistic environment. By the way, I mean that for those on both sides of the question.
3. Finally, although your grandson may be a genius, who cares? Keep it civil. Or not.

Posted by: DT | March 21, 2007 09:45 AM

And GWB did it at the beginning of his term, and Reagan did it at the beginning of his term. So what is your point? That it is OK to dismiss USAs to prevent them from completing politically embarrassing investigations simply because other administrations wanted to START with a clean slate? This is looking more and more like obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

What happened here is unprecedented in U.S. history.

Posted by: Nellie | March 21, 2007 12:07 PM

My point is that appointments and firings are done all the time, at the beginning, middle and, I'll suspect, the end. So... we both agree on that point. On whether it is OK to fire for a political reason or not..... oh, come on. I mean, I was rooting for Jimmy Stewart during that filibuster too. Unfortunately for the country, political decisions including hiring and firing have their precedents at the beginning of the Republic.

Posted by: DT | March 21, 2007 01:59 PM

"You see, John, the President is supposed to be above even the APPEARANCE of impropriety"


man that was a good one!

Anyway. Doonesbury said it best, today (in the archives). The liberals are happy to spend $100k and get a night in the Lincoln bedroom. Republican donors get a much better deal, they get to actually write US law! Now with the competition brought about by 25 years of political feuding, Republicans get even more for their money now: they get to choose their local prosecutor! I don't think that the Constitution can really stand up to the hegemony embodied by the Repubilcan party. Party loyalty counts above all else. You don't just drink that Kool-Aid, you chug it, by the bottle. To the Republicans, nothing is more important than attaining and maintaining power, and any Republican who undermines their partys' hold on power can expect to be dismissed in haste. That goes double for anyone "who serves at the pleasure of the President", and these claims that what happened was entirely with in his rights as President ring quite hollow. It's not even clear that Bush knew what was going on, in Justice. This was a Rovian housecleaning, Bush might have mentioned a few names but it isn't clear that he said "fire this guy and replace him with someone more loyal". Unless...that's SOP in the GWWH, and in that case, I think the Constution, already battered beyond recognition during his two terms as Decider in Chief, has lost its power with all these court jesters at work hacking it to bits in the name of American justice.

Just ask yourself: if Sampson did nothing wrong, in the end, by replacing these 8 prosecutors at the discretion of the President, then why did he even resign? And he's not the only one who resigned. Or pled the 5th, which supposedly is a precursor for resigning. If it's all above-board in the end, why the resignations? Think about what I just said. They are resigning to distract Congress, so that Congress won't tighten up the laws pertaining to the appointment and dismissal of federal prosecutors and other political appointees required for the good operation of the federal government. Even if more Congressional oversight would be unconstitutional, the Constitution *can* be changed. And clearly it needs to be changed. Prosecutors need more immunity from political retribution, for the sake of the country. Bush and Gonzalez are just trying to head off Congress by throwing a few junior members under the bus. And they are going under there willingly. That's what good Republican stooges do. They'd rather protect their ability to screw up the federal government, than to admit that what they have done was not only wrong, it was a very bad idea. To even give the impression to the other 86 prosecutors that they could be fired at will for annoying some Congressman or some political attache' in the White House? Is that really the message that we want to see come out of this?

Posted by: cc | March 31, 2007 12:11 AM

"Unfortunately for the country, political decisions including hiring and firing have their precedents at the beginning of the Republic."

So does slavery.

Precedence is the WEAKEST argument for continuing the status quo that I've ever heard. We do not do things today the way they were done 230 years ago for a whole host of very good reasons, over a wide range of circumstances. This is not 1776. Get over it.

Posted by: cc | March 31, 2007 12:13 AM

...again it's not whether he has the right, or the power, to fire the prosecutors. It's *why* these prosecutors were fired at this time. And I think now, who actually fired them. Who was involved and who wasn't. Was it a bunch of mid-level guys at Justice, or the AG and the President, or the "head of the WH policy department" or some Republican party bigwig? These are very important points. Especially with all this related activity going on through unofficial channels, with many of the principals resigning after the fact.

It is not just that he has the right to do it. Much like he has the right to declare someone an enemy combatant. There is a right way and a wrong way to do these things. He is not President so he can do whatever the Constitution says that he can do, anytime and for any reason he feels like doing it. And for you to tell people that if they don't like it, tough, he's the President and it's his right. If you feel that way then you need to read the remnants of the Constitution specifically the part about impeachment for general incompetence or a lack of confidence. Those very same Senators cannot tell the President that he cannot fire federal prosecutors. But they can easily dismiss the President himself. And especially if he gives them good reason to do so, in firing the wrong prosecutors for bad reasons. As well they should.

And to me GW does not have so many "political chips" left in his bag, that he can afford to get even more sloppy going into his last two years. The guy has already caused more than enough trouble in 6 years. We can get rid of him next week if it comes to that. The House would be happy to impeach GW if they thought the Senate would act on their recommendation. And that would mean Rove goes, Gonzalez goes, all of those clowns go. Unless Cheney wants to keep them, and he can be impeached too.

Posted by: cc | March 31, 2007 12:30 AM

in fact GW is in so much trouble with Congress that he had to call the Republican caucus to the WH for a Kool-Aid chugging session. But I don't think that he realizes, or at least, wants to admit, that he's the only lame duck in DC, and that what is good for him is not necessarily good for the Republican party. It will be interesting to see which side KR stands on, when push comes to shove. He can choose to keep the WH or choose to keep the current Republican seats in Congress. The odds are that he can't keep both. As much as they want to avoid a battle over a withdrawal deadline, the longer the war goes on the fewer seats the Republicans will hold in Congress, and the lower the chances of holding onto the WH. The party cannot stand another two years of American occupation in Iraq and the country cannot afford another two years of war on the budget. Bush is up the creek without a paddle...he may not want to begin the withdrawal in March. But those troops are coming home sometime next year. He can veto the current appropriations bill but that still won't fund the war, to fund the war he has to get an appropriations bill from Congress. He doesn't have anything left to lose, and this battle over the prosecutors is the wrong fight at the wrong time. By vetoing the current bill he is saying that we can't secure Iraq before March 2008. March 2008 is 9 months before the 2008 elections. He may not like March 2008 but it's a whole lot better than trying to leave Iraq before August. The primaries are early next year. He does not have more than 18 months to draw down in Iraq. Obviously he's got more than enough on his hands right now and this debacle is not what he needs. He *definitely* does not need a fight with Congress or yet another embarrassing episode coming out of the law-enforcement division of the federal government.

Posted by: cc | March 31, 2007 12:47 AM

last but not least, Bush better take a close look at the current appropriations offer. He's going to see a lot more in it than a drawdown date. There are also mandatory readiness requirements in that bill as well as a minimum rotation period for US troops. No more two tours in less than a year. It's going to cut real hard into our troop levels, either way it goes. Congress has many tools to get our troops home short of a fixed drawdown date. Bush has nothing except his Kool-Aid. That Kool-Aid is useless without political power to go along with it. We're already looking at a nationwide recession behind a retreating housing market, combined with an increase in fuel and food prices due to uncertainty over Iran coupled with Saudi unhappiness over our continued occupation of Iraq. There just is not much room for him to maneuver in, this year. Bush is entering the No Kool-aid zone.

Posted by: cc | March 31, 2007 12:55 AM

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