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Independent of Politics

The furor over the Bush administration's firing of U.S. attorneys is more than just 'a lot of politics,' as Karl Rove alleges.

Top White House aide Karl Rove continues to portray the U.S. attorney scandal as “a lot of politics,” something for Congress to “play around with.” But the continuing allegations of wrongdoing and dishonesty are placing heavy pressure on senior Bush administration figures. “Republican officials operating at the behest of the White House have begun seeking a possible successor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales,” whose support among conservative lawmakers has “collapsed,” The Politico reported last night. Rove’s spin cannot paper over the serious ethical and legal questions raised by the U.S. attorney purge and the administration’s subsequent effort to cover up its deeds.

  • There is substantial evidence that Bush administration officials may have lied to Congress. Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty testified to Congress that the Justice Department would never fire U.S. attorneys for political reasons. Subsequent Justice Department emails have shown that to be untrue. It is illegal to lie to Congress, and the relevant provision “is very broad.” Gonzales has blamed their inaccurate testimony on his former chief of staff Kyle Sampson, who resigned last week after Gonzales said Sampson had provided “incomplete information” to senior Justice Department officials. But as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington explains, “Federal law provides that if Sampson knew that he was causing DOJ officials to make inaccurate statements to Congress, he can be prosecuted for the federal crime of lying to Congress even though he did not personally make any statements to Congress.” Now Sampson’s lawyer now says other top Justice Department officials knew of the White House’s role.

  • U.S. attorneys should not be fired to stop an impending prosecution. “If the attorneys were fired to interfere with a valid prosecution, or to punish them for not misusing their offices, that may well have been illegal.” “Fired San Diego U.S. attorney Carol Lam notified the Justice Department that she intended to execute search warrants on a high-ranking CIA official as part of a corruption probe the day before a Justice Department official sent an email that said Lam needed to be fired,” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said on Sunday. Feinstein “said the timing of the e-mail suggested that Lam’s dismissal may have been connected to the corruption probe.” Congress has also called for an investigation of the removal of Fred Black, the U.S. attorney in Guam, who was fired after he began investigating criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff. “Anyone involved in firing a United States attorney to obstruct or influence an official proceeding could have broken the law.” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said last week that if an attorney is fired “to stop an ongoing investigation, then you do get into the criminal area.”

  • Politics played the principal role in evaluating the performance of U.S. attorneys. Emails show that the Bush administration rated the “performance” of U.S. attorneys on whether or not they were “loyal Bushies.” The White House is justifying its prosecutor purge by arguing that since these attorneys are “political” appointees who “serve at the pleasure of the President,” there’s nothing objectionable about them being fired for political reasons. But as Feinstein has pointed out, “political” means only that they are appointed by the president. “[O]nce that prosecutor takes the oath of office, that prosecutor must become independent,” she said. Likewise, Leahy noted that while there is nothing illegal in a president firing a U.S. attorney, the message it sends to law enforcement is, “You either play by our political rules — by our political rules, not by law enforcement rules, but by our political rules — or you’re out of a job. What I am saying is that that hurts law enforcement, that hurts fighting against crime.”