The L.A. Times has a big story about internal White House e-mails regarding the Bush Administration’s decision to oust eight U.S. Attorneys. But as far as the actual firings themselves go, the real story appears to be that the White House had legitimate reasons for firing many of these folks.
The e-mails certainly don’t appear to corroborate the allegation Democrats keep repeating: that U.S. Attorneys were fired for going after Republicans, or for failing to go after Democrats. Instead, judging from the e-mails, it appears that the White House was genuinely concerned with performance issues, such as a failure to go after drug smugglers, and — hold onto your hat — an insufficient focus on illegal immigration cases. Yes: the White House fired a U.S. Attorney for going too easy on those illegal aliens!
I suppose it’s possible the e-mails are part of some whitewash. But the portions quoted by the paper seem very frank, and not written for public consumption. Indeed, they are awash in the cynical political lingo of crisis management, with talking points about how to manage any public relations fallout.
But it looks like the actual underlying decisions themselves were well grounded in sound complaints about performance. At worst, the White House followed traditional practices of handing out U.S. Attorney positions as political plums, and wanted U.S. Attorneys to follow Administration policy. As the kids say: “Duh.” (Do they still say that? Well, my seven-year-old says I’m not supposed to say it, so I guess they do.)
Here are some of the not-so-shocking details revealed by the article as reasons for the firings:
D. Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, came up with a checklist. He rated each of the U.S. attorneys with criteria that appeared to value political allegiance as much as job performance. [This is a conclusion. Get to the facts. — Ed.]
He recommended retaining “strong U.S. Attorneys who have … exhibited loyalty to the President and Attorney General.” He suggested “removing weak U.S. Attorneys who have … chafed against Administration initiatives.”
OK, so the Administration wanted U.S. Attorneys who would carry out Administration policies. I’m sure we’re all shocked by that.
Here’s an example of a U.S. Attorney who did chafe against Administration policy — and the Administration’s response will shock some of you. It will especially shock our friends who claim that Bush is leaning on U.S. Attorneys to soften immigration enforcement. You know: the folks who believe that Bush personally ordered Johnny Sutton, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, to prosecute a couple of supposedly innocent Border Patrol Agents for crimes they supposedly didn’t commit. I’d love to see the expressions on our cynical friends’ faces when they read this:
It [the released material] also made clear that in San Diego, U.S. Attorney Carol Lam was fired for not being tougher on illegal immigration. Sampson told Kelley that Justice had a “real problem” with Lam. He later asked William Mercer, the acting associate attorney general, whether officials “ever called Carol Lam and woodshedded her re immigration enforcement.”
Yup, you read that right. The Bushies fired Lam for going too lax on immigration enforcement!
Not only that, the Bushies were pushing to have big-time drug smugglers prosecuted:
In July, for instance, a Justice Department official advised the White House that U.S. Atty. Paul Charlton in Arizona was not prosecuting marijuana cases involving less than 500 pounds. His stance had riled then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
About the worst things revealed by the article are actually quite commonplace. For example:
The documents show that in one case, officials were eager to free up the prosecutor’s slot in Little Rock, Ark., so it could be filled by Timothy Griffin, a GOP operative close to White House political guru Karl Rove — at all costs.
“We should gum this to death,” Sampson e-mailed Monica Goodling, the Justice Department’s liaison to the White House. He said officials should talk up Griffin’s appointment and try to “forestall” any criticism from Capitol Hill. Just “run out the clock” on any objections, he said.
The Administration wanted to give out a U.S. Attorney position as a political plum?! I am shocked. SHOCKED! I tells ya. Why, this has never before happened in the history of the country! Stop the presses!
Out of all eight U.S. Attorneys, there is one instance where there may be a political issue. The article reveals that Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) “phoned [U.S. Attorney David C.] Iglesias to inquire about a seemingly stalled corruption investigation against Democrats in New Mexico.” But even here, the article cites no real evidence from the e-mails showing that Domenici had any effect on the Administration’s decision to oust Iglesias. The article mentions e-mails sent after the firing, noting that Domenici was happy and was quickly submitting names as possible replacements. These e-mails show an (amused) awareness that Domenici had been unhappy with Iglesias — but the e-mails are not evidence that Domenici’s unhappiness had any effect.
Unmentioned by The Times is the fact that Iglesias, the fired New Mexico U.S. Attorney, had passed on more than a hundred allegations of voter fraud in New Mexico. After calling a press conference and saying: “It appears that mischief is afoot, and questions are lurking in the shadows,” he let his office drop most of the complaints, claiming that he lacked the resources to investigate them, and that the FBI had declined to investigate.
I think this is inexcusable. If you are the U.S. Attorney, you can play a role in setting priorities for the FBI — especially in the critically important area of voter fraud. Are there any White House e-mails talking about this issue with respect to the dismissal of Iglesias? Who knows? If there are, I don’t trust the L.A. Times to tell us about them.
(L.A. Times editors: would it kill you to publish the e-mails? We know you have them. We know from all the ellipses in your article that they are selectively quoted. You have unlimited space on the Web to show them to your readers. Why not dump them on there, and let us read them? Is there something that you are trying to hide??)
The tenor of the article is clear: the L.A. Times is trying to portray these e-mails as sinister. But honestly, this is pretty thin gruel. The article tries to beef it up by continual references to the White House effort to “oust” or “push out” the U.S. Attorneys — as if it is a highly unusual action for an incoming (or re-elected) president to clean house and replace U.S. Attorneys. To the contrary, every new elected President clears all the U.S. Attorneys out — as Hillary Clinton herself had to admit, since her husband did the same thing. Does the L.A. Times mention that? Not on your life.
Naturally, the apparently legitimate reasons for the firings articulated in the e-mails have gotten lost in all the noise over the mea culpa issued by the ever-clownish Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales screwed up everything by allowing Justice Department officials to mislead Congress regarding the extent of the White House’s involvement in the firings. Gonzales thus handed the Democrats a P.R. bonanza: he has no choice but to admit mistakes, and the Democrats get to define those mistakes in a misleading fashion, to make them sound like admissions that the White House was playing politics with the U.S. Attorneys. Even though the e-mails appear to indicate that the White House had legitimate reasons to fire the U.S. Attorneys, Gonzales’s clumsy handling of the matter gives Democrats the argument there is more than meets the eye.
Is there? I suppose it’s possible. But these e-mails provide scant evidence of any deep conspiracy to play politics with the U.S. Attorney’s Office — despite the best efforts of the L.A. Times to make it appear otherwise.
UPDATE: A decent paper managed to put the e-mails online. Here they are:
Looking at Set 1, we can see what was excised from very first L.A. Times passage quoted in the post above. The L.A. Times, seeking to emphasize the political motivations of the Administration, quotes Sampson as recommending the retention of “strong U.S. attorneys who have … exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general.” The article further quotes Sampson as recommending “removing weak U.S. Attorneys who have … chafed against Administration initiatives.” Here’s what Sampson’s original memo said (my emphasis):
bold = Recommend retaining; strong U.S. Attorneys who have produced, managed well, and exhibited loyalty to the President and Attorney General.
strikeout = Recommend removing: weak U.S. Attorneys who have been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against Administration initiatives, etc.
The L.A. Times removed the bolded parts, which showed that the Administration cared about good results and management.
UPDATE x2: I have now read all of the e-mails. They contain many interesting revelations not reported by the media — including virtually conclusive proof that Carol Lam was not selected for termination due to the Randy “Duke” Cunningham case. Details here.