Thursday, May 17, 2007

The List and the Lies

When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before Congress last week, he stated that only eight prosecutors — that he knew of — had been selected for termination.

Well, guess what. The Washington Post reports that between February 2005 and Decemebr 2006, as many as 26 U.S. attorneys were on a list to be fired.

They amounted to more than a quarter of the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys. Thirteen of those known to have been targeted are still in their posts.

It is unclear how many knew they had been considered for removal. When asked yesterday about her inclusion on the lists, U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby of Maine said: “Really? I wasn’t aware of that.” Silsby’s name crops up frequently, first in February 2005 and subsequently three more times, most recently a month before most of the dismissals were carried out last December.

The number of names on the lists demonstrates the breadth of the search for prosecutors to dismiss. The names also hint at a casual process in which the people who were most consistently considered for replacement were not always those ultimately told to leave.

When shown the lists of firing candidates late yesterday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the most outspoken critic of the way Gonzales handled the prosecutor dismissals, said they “show how amok this process was.”

“When you start firing people for invalid reasons, just about anyone can end up on a list,” he said. “It looks like the process was out of control, and if it hadn’t been discovered, more would have been fired.”

Josh Marshall at TPM suggests that the scatter-shot process of suggested terminations fits into a scenario that went from being the normal process at the beginning of the Bush second term to becoming a political weapon — both offensive and defensive — as things got nasty.

If you look over the broad scattering of documents thus far released on the Attorney Purge, there’s at least an argument to be made that it unfolds something like this. Someone gets the bright idea, very early in 2005 to can all of the US Attorneys or a lot of them. But for one reason or another the idea gets rejected or just dies a slow bureaucratic death. However it happens, by the end of 2005 the idea’s basically moribund.

But then in early 2006 some problems come up — a rising wave of Republican corruption scandals and declining Republican political fortunes. And the US Attorney Purge idea gets revived — but now with a much more specific focus, with an eye toward the 2006 and 2008 elections. Certain US Attorneys become more of a problem with expanding corruption investigations.

There has also been the suggestion that the mass-firings approach was one way of covering up the real target of the White House: Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor who got the conviction of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

It sounds as if we’re getting into tin-foil-hat paranoia to suggest that, but given what’s gone on at the behest of the White House, including a phone call from the president that prompted a hospital visit to the critically ill Attorney General at the time, John Ashcroft (and the threat of mass resignations in retaliation), it doesn’t sound so far-fetched.

It also could explain why Mr. Gonzales may face questions about whether or not he lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee when he stated that there was no disagreement in the Justice Department about the renewal of the warrantless wiretapping going on in violation of the FISA act. The testimony of James Comey seems to contradict that of Mr. Gonzales, but the Justice Department is sticking to their story. Well, what choice do they have?

It’s just another link in the chain that is slowly being put together to prove that the Department of Justice was just another political operation. We all know who is in charge of that in this administration: Karl Rove. So far the trail to Mr. Rove has been very well covered — the subpoena to the DOJ for his e-mails in the matter of the attorney purge has come up with what amounts to zilch, but Next week we’ll be finding out a bit more about his role in all of this when Monica Goodling, the former DOJ White House liaison testifies under a grant of immunity. That could be interesting.