Behind the Scenes of the U.S. Attorney Firings
As is often the case, the U.S. attorneys firing story is a much more complicated story than it seems at first blush.
According to E-mails and documents released today and interviews with current and former Justice Department officials, the saga began in early 2005, against the backdrop of the second term of the Bush administration unfolding, with many new White House staffers and a new attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, in place, and talk of across-the-board change in many departments.
Then White House counsel Harriet Miers told Gonzales's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, that it might be good to fire all 93 U.S. attorneys and replace them with new picks. Sampson, Justice officials say, was not inclined to remove any of them unless they had served their full four-year term and also was opposed to a wholesale purge, remembering the outcry in 1993 when President Bill Clinton did exactly that, leading to enormous anger among republicans in Congress.
But in the interest of the "betterment of the organization," Sampson agreed to begin an informal evaluation of U.S. attorneys. Indeed, over the next year, Sampson began to "consult" with senior officials in an attempt to identify the 10 worst U.S. attorneys who could conceivably be replaced. Current and former Justice officials say Sampson consulted with, among others, Michael Battle, head of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneyswho has now resignedand his predecessor, Mary Beth Buchanan, as well as then Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who's now senior vice president and general counsel of Lockheed Martin. Comey would confirm to U.S. News only that he provided Sampson with a list of weak U.S. attorneys.
But a former Justice official says that Comey's list bore little resemblance to the list of those fired last year. The only prosecutor on the fired list who also was on Comey's list was Kevin Ryan, in San Francisco, who, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, had "widespread management and morale problems in his office." In fact, Ryan wound up on Sampson's list among the higher-ranked prosecutors.
Finally, a year after his initial conversation with Miers, Sampson wrote her an E-mail informing her that there were "practical obstacles to removing and replacing U.S. attorneys." Among them:
- "Significant disruption" to the work of the Justice Department;
- Raising the ire of home-state senators, who have customarily been consulted on U.S. attorney appointments;
- Finding good replacements and getting them through Senate confirmation.
However, he said none of the obstacles was "insuperable." He recommended removing a "limited" number of U.S. attorneys, "mitigating the shock to the system" that could result from an "across-the-board firing."
He pointed out that the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys could "work quietly with targeted U.S. attorneys to encourage them to leave government service voluntarily" as a "save face" measure.
Sampson provided a list of seven attorneys to be dismissed. A Justice official said Sampson used rigorous standards in coming up with the final seven, culled from 12. If anyone said anything good about the prosecutors on his initial list, the official said, Sampson took them off the list.
In September 2006, Sampson sent an E-mail to Monica Goodling, Gonzales's senior counsel and White House liaison, formally listing U.S. attorneys who might be replaced. However, Sampson said, he was only "in favor of executing on a plan to push some USAs out" if the administration was committed to quickly selecting candidates and getting them appointed. He also suggested that one way to expedite the process was to use new provisions in the Patriot Act that authorize the attorney general to appoint U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. That way, Sampson said, "we can give far less deference to home-state senators" and get the "preferred person" appointed without too much political cost to the White House.
It was only at this point, says a Justice official, that Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty was brought into the game. Gonzales said Tuesday that Sampson did not fully disclose his long dealings with the White House before McNulty was sent out to defend the firings on the Hill, which he did with alacrity.
Now McNulty, the Justice official says, is "incensed" because he was left hung out to dry before irate Democrats.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department communications office had embarked on an aggressive defense, emphasizing over and over again that the firings were based on performance, not politics, when in fact, politics was the trigger, the prelude to a sordid drama, the final act of which remains to be seen.