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The purge of the prosecutors

March 23, 2007 | Pages 1 and 2

NICOLE COLSON and ALAN MAASS report on the latest scandal to batter the beleaguered Bush administration.

THE SCANDAL over the Bush administration's purge of federal prosecutors it considered disloyal may soon claim Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as its next victim--and that's just for starters.

The outcry over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys late last year--seven on a single day in December--made headlines last week with the publication of e-mails showing that Gonzales knew about the purge, and that White House officials were involved, too.

In February, a Justice Department official testified before Congress that all of the firings were "performance related." But it appears now that most of the eight had received positive job performance ratings--and instead were targeted for not doing the bidding of the White House and leading Republicans.

According to the e-mails, as early as 2005, White House counsel (and later failed Supreme Court nominee) Harriet Miers asked Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, whether it would be possible to replace all 93 U.S. attorneys when their four-year terms expired.

George Bush's top political adviser Karl Rove was also part of the discussion. In a message from January 6, 2005, one White House lawyer wrote to a colleague: "Karl Rove stopped by to ask you (roughly quoting) 'how we planned to proceed regarding U.S. attorneys.'" A later e-mail from Sampson suggested the firings could prompt protests from members of Congress, but added, "That said, if Karl thinks there is the political will to do it, then so do I."

In another e-mail, Sampson laid out who was not a target for firing: "The vast majority of U.S. Attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc."

On the other hand, Sampson wrote in a separate e-mail about "the real problem that we have right now with Carol Lam"--the U.S. Attorney in Southern California who prosecuted former Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham for collecting $2.4 million in yachts, homes and other bribes in exchange for help in getting government contracts.

This e-mail came the day after Lam notified the Justice Department about two search warrants in her investigation into Cunningham's associates, defense contractor Brent Wilkes and Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, the recently resigned number-three man at the CIA.

Another apparent "problem" for the White House was prosecutors who failed to respond to pressure to investigate Democratic "vote fraud."

For example, fired prosecutor David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney in New Mexico, reported being pressed by the state's Republican Sen. Pete Domenici to investigate allegations of vote-rigging--something that would have embarrassed Democrats in the upcoming 2006 elections.

When Domenici didn't get his way, he took his grievance straight to George Bush himself--and lo and behold, Iglesias was out of a job within weeks. "I didn't give them what they wanted," Iglesias told the Washington Post. "That was probably a political problem that caused them to go to the White House or whomever and complain that I wasn't a team player."

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THE PURGE of Lam, Iglesias and the others was facilitated by a provision snuck into the reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act last year--which allows the White House to replace U.S. attorneys without Senate approval.

This unnoticed sleight-of-hand was executed by Republican Sen. Arlen Spector--and his chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Brett Tolman, who was subsequently rewarded with a new position as (surprise, surprise) a U.S. attorney.

For his part, Gonzales claims that the blame for what he initially called an "overblown personnel matter" lies solely with his subordinates. Kyle Sampson has been forced to resign, but even top Republicans like New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu and California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher are calling on Gonzales to step down.

Democrats are promising congressional investigations, with subpoenas to require the testimony of not only Justice Department officials, past and present, but Rove and Miers at the White House. The White House could claim executive privilege, and stop these two from testifying--setting the stage for a showdown and more weeks of uproar in Washington.

Of course, Gonzales and his boss are guilty of greater crimes than a few political firings.

As White House counsel, Gonzales helped author the U.S. policies on rendition and torture of detainees at prisons in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and elsewhere. He refused to accept the Geneva Conventions, which outline the rights of prisoners, warning that U.S. soldiers could be prosecuted for war crimes. He initiated the crafting of a Justice Department memo that redefined torture as only those techniques that produce pain "of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure."

Every senator, Republican and Democrat alike, knew about this scandal before Gonzales' nomination as attorney came up for a vote--but he still won confirmation by a comfortable 60-to-36 margin.

As attorney general, Gonzales has overseen some of the worst "Big Brother" policies of the Bush administration, including a massively expanded domestic surveillance programs. So while it is a pleasure to watch them squirm as this latest scandal unfolds, Alberto Gonzales and his friends in the Bush administration need to be held accountable for many more crimes.

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