Note to Gonzales on CIA Prosecution Preceded Firing of U.S. Attorney
On May 11, 2006, Kyle Sampson, then chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, sent a confidential E-mail to the White House counsel's office regarding the "removal and replacement" of U.S. attorneys whose four-year terms had expired, including the U.S. attorney in San Diego, Carol Lam: "The real problem we have right now with Carol Lam," Sampson wrote, "that leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated on 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires."
So what was the "real problem" that Sampson thought the administration had with Lam?
U.S. News has learned that on May 10, one day before Sampson's E-mail to the White House counsel's office, the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego alerted the Justice Department that the FBI would execute search warrants in two days for the No. 3 official at the CIA, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, in connection with the spiraling corruption probe into former Republican Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham of California.
Now Democratic members of Congress want to know whether that alert triggered Sampson's E-mail and whether Lam's firing and those of seven other federal prosecutors were politically motivated. Sampson's E-mail, sent one day after the alert, raises serious questions as to whether the CIA tried to intervene in a politically charged investigation and tried to get Lam fired.
In politically sensitive cases, the U.S. attorney's office notifies senior Justice Department leadership of developments in the case by sending what's known as an urgent report.
In this case, the U.S. attorney in San Diego sent an urgent report to Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty at 10:16 a.m. on May 10, notifying them of the imminent search. Foggo was under investigation for allegedly accepting gifts and favors from his best friend, a defense contractor named Brent Wilkes, who also allegedly was bribing Cunningham. Wilkes had close ties to prominent Republicans. Both Wilkes and Foggo have since been indicted by a federal grand jury on corruption charges. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Although the FBI had worked closely with the CIA in connection with targeting CIA spies like Aldrich Ames, never in the agency's history had such a search warrant been issued against such a high-level CIA official for nonespionage criminal conduct. And the prospect of it raised alarming institutional concerns. Before becoming the No. 3 official at the CIA, Foggo had served in the Directorate of Operations, and he had access to enormously sensitive secrets.
The Justice Department is expected to release more than 400 pages of E-mails and other documents today relating to the U.S. attorney firings. The urgent report of May 10 and Sampson's E-mail of May 11 will become crucial pieces of evidence in trying to determine whether the Bush administration acted improperly and fired Lam and other U.S. attorneys to squelch politically sensitive public corruption cases.
U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. But although they are political appointees, there is supposed to be a firewall that allows them to make decisions in criminal investigations without regard to politics.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse told U.S. News that the firings were unrelated to the ongoing public corruption case.
"We have stated numerous times that no U.S. attorney was removed to retaliate against or inappropriately interfere with any public corruption investigation or prosecution," says Roehrkasse. "This remains the case, and there is no evidence that indicates otherwise."
Roehrkasse points out that during that same period, two prominent members of Congress, Darrell Issa and Dianne Feinstein, had sent letters to the Justice Department expressing displeasure at Lam's failure to crack down on human smugglers. But Feinstein says that Lam, along with five other prosecutors, got positive performance reviews and believes these firings, including Lam's, were politically motivated.
How the CIA's growing concerns about the involvement of one of its most senior officials in a bribery scandal that also had tawdry sexual overtones played into the growing pressure to fire Lam will be a question that Congress will ask in coming months.
Sampson's lawyer did not provide an answer as to what Sampson meant by his cryptic "the real problem" description of Lam.
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield told U.S. News that the CIA had helped investigators with the Wilkes-Foggo-Cunningham probe.
"Allegations concerning this matter first surfaced inside the CIA, and the Office of the Inspector General launched an investigation," says Mansfield. Subsequently, Mansfield said, that investigation became linked to the criminal probe being conducted by Lam's office.
"And at every step of the process," said Mansfield, "the CIA, through the Office of the Inspector General and the general counsel, has cooperated closely with other investigative agencies and the Department of Justice. And that cooperation continues today."
Indeed, federal law enforcement officials told U.S. News that the CIA had been extremely helpful on a number of levels. However, even though the CIA was part of the investigative team, so sensitive was the Foggo probe that as is customary in most criminal investigations, the U.S. attorney's office had taken enormous pains to keep the CIA in the dark about what its next move would be, these federal law enforcement officials said. The agency was not notified about the impending search warrants until May 12, the morning they were executed. But for two weeks prior to the search, there were a series of explosive stories in the paper, linking Foggo to Wilkes and Cunningham.
On April 28, what came to be known as the "Hookergate" scandal broke, alleging that Cunningham and Foggo had attended poker parties at the Watergate Hotel and that prostitutes were involved. CIA Director Porter Goss denied any involvement.
On May 2, Foggo confirmed that he had attended the parties, and two days later, the Watergate Hotel was subpoenaed. On May 5, the Wall Street Journal reported that Foggo, whom Goss had installed as the No. 3 official, was under criminal investigation. That same day, Goss resigned, although the White House and the Justice Department took pains to emphasize that the resignation was unrelated to the probe. Three days later, Foggo resigned. By then, the U.S. attorney's office had notified the CIA inspector general's office that it was mulling over possible search warrants.
The U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia also had been notified, because Shirlington Limo Co., which allegedly had shuttled the prostitutes to the party, was based in Virginia.
On May 10, the U.S. attorney's office sent the urgent report to Gonzales and McNulty. The following day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Cunningham investigation had expanded further to include another California congressman, Rep. Jerry Lewis.
That same day, Sampson asked the White House counsel's office to call him about "the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam." The following day, the FBI executed search warrants on Foggo's home and office.
Wilkes and Foggo were indicted on February 14one of Lam's last gestureson corruption charges. The 11-count indictment alleged that Wilkes had treated his friend to private jet flights and luxurious vacations, and that he had a job offer waiting for his best friend when he left the CIA.
Some have speculated that Lam was fired because her investigation had targeted so powerful a congressman as Lewis. Other sources have said that Wilkes, through his high-powered Republican friends and his CIA ties through Foggo, was exerting enormous pressure on the White House to get rid of Lam and somehow end the probe.
Wilkes allegedly gave Cunningham millions in bribes and favors, including $525,000 to pay off a mortgage on Cunningham's new home and access to prostitutes. In exchange, Cunningham helped Wilkes obtain lucrative Pentagon contracts. Similarly, in exchange for lavish giftsincluding a $44,000 one-week stay at a Scottish castleprosecutors alleged that Foggo pressured his subordinates to give lucrative CIA contracts to Wilkes and his company ADCS Inc.
Between 1995 and 2005, Wilkes and his associates spent at least $600,000 on political contributions and more than $1 million on lobbying prominent Republican lawmakers. Among other things, Wilkes hired the Alexander Strategy Group to the tune of more than $600,000 to lobby for lucrative defense contracts. That firm had direct access to then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who was indicted by a Texas grand jury on alleged campaign finance shenanigans. DeLay said the charges were politically trumped up. Subsequently, two of his aides were indicted in the Jack Abramoff Indian casino lobbying scandal.
Put simply, the Cunningham probe had slowly extended its ever growing tentacles into the highest reaches of the Republican Party and now suddenly had expanded to target Foggo at the CIA.
"The phone calls would have been flying," says a former Justice official who has worked closely with the CIA. "The CIA would be jumping up and down and putting pressure to stop it or slow it down."
Many intelligence sources say the concern would not have been over Foggo personallybecause he was generally "despised"but that the CIA would have had an institutional interest in keeping itself out of any scandal.
"There would have been a two-pronged attack," says the former Justice official, "to protect the agency and to get rid of Lam." Even though Foggo had quit the agency, he still had many friends there who viewed themselves as being at risk.
"It's second nature to the CIA," says the former official. "Somebody's causing trouble. Get rid of them."
Although a CIA official described such a possibility as baseless, it does in fact have a precedentand strangely enough, that precedent also was set in the San Diego U.S. attorney's officemore than two decades ago.
In 1982, the CIA pressured President Ronald Reagan to fire U.S. Attorney William Kennedy, who wanted to indict Miguel Nazar Haro, the former chief of the Federal Security DirectorateMexico's secret policefor his involvement in an $8 million car-theft ring that had smuggled about 600 stolen American cars and vans from Southern California to Mexico. Kennedy complained that the CIA was blocking the indictment because, as it turned out, Haro was the agency's asset in Mexico City. Kennedy also accused the Justice Department of dragging its feet on the indictment because of the CIA pressure. After Kennedy was fired, says the former Justice official, senior CIA officials "acted like gunslingers" and warned other Justice officials not to take on the agency or a similar fate could befall them.
But an intelligence official from another agency, who is familiar with the Haro case, said that it had taken place a long time ago, when times were very different. Today's CIA, he said, would not be stupid enough to pull off such a tactic. But when that search warrant was served, says the former Justice official, the CIA would have been stunned.
"In the words of Bart Simpson," he said, "they were having a cow."