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Gonzales caught in web of lies

By Lee Sustar | April 6, 2007 | Pages 1 and 3

U.S. ATTORNEY General Alberto Gonzales faced new calls for his resignation--including from Republicans--after his former top aide testified that Gonzales was intimately involved in the decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys for political reasons.

Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Gonzales, told the Senate Judiciary Committee March 29 that the attorney general was involved in "at least five" meetings in which top Justice Department officials evaluated U.S. attorneys. "I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate," Sampson said.

Gonzales himself will testify before the committee in what could be a last-ditch attempt to save his job--but he won't appear until April 17, leaving more weeks of media uproar to come.

It's certainly no secret that the appointment of federal prosecutors is a political perk shared by the White House and home-state U.S. senators, who usually recommend allies for the job--or at least have veto power over who gets these powerful posts.

What distinguishes the behavior of the Bush White House is that Gonzales apparently consulted with Bush's political operative Karl Rove before tasking his top aides with the job of firing attorneys who were deemed insufficiently loyal to the Bush agenda.

The purge was made possible by a little-known provision slipped into the reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act that allows the White House to fill vacant positions for U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. The measure was supposedly intended to keep prosecutions of terrorists on track. Instead, it was used--as usual in the Bush administration--to install Republican Party operatives in as many influential positions as possible.

One of the fired U.S. attorneys, Carol Lam of San Diego, was ousted after her successful prosecution of former Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham for taking bribes from a defense contractor. The Justice Department's cover story--that Lam was insufficiently aggressive in prosecuting immigration cases--doesn't hold up. Lam was as vigilant an immigrant-basher as any U.S. attorney.

The political motive for the firings is clearest in the case of David Iglesias of New Mexico, where Republican Sen. Pete Domenici called Bush personally to claim that Iglesias had been insufficiently enthusiastic about investigating sketchy allegations of vote fraud by New Mexico Democrats.

Both Paul Charlton of Arizona and Margaret Chiara of Michigan were criticized for failing to aggressively seek death sentences--in line with the effort begun by former Attorney General John Ashcroft and continued by Gonzales to expand federal executions.

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ALL THIS has led to solemn editorials in mainstream newspapers about the need to cleanse the U.S. attorney selection process of political considerations. The reality, though, is that U.S. attorneys are, and have always been, a motley collection of cops, careerists and climbers.

Aside from cases against relatively few high-profile perpetrators of corporate and political scandal--and, more recently, alleged terrorists--federal prosecutors build their reputations by filling prisons with the poor and oppressed, while angling for judgeships or political office. Rudolph Giuliani is one shining example.

Gonzales is in trouble not for changing this system, but for promoting an even higher percentage of unqualified political hacks than usual--and offending U.S. senators' lordly prerogatives in such matters.

"About one-third of the nearly four dozen U.S. attorney's jobs that have changed hands since President Bush began his second term have been filled by the White House and the Justice Department with trusted administration insiders," the Washington Post reported April 1.

"The people chosen as chief federal prosecutors on a temporary or permanent basis since early 2005 include 10 senior aides to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, according to an analysis of government records. Several came from the White House or other government agencies. Some lacked experience as prosecutors or had no connection to the districts in which they were sent to work, the records and biographical information show."

Thus, Gonzales--who breezed through his Senate confirmation hearing despite having written the White House memo on using torture on detainees in the "war on terror"--now finds his job on the line for upsetting Washington's sense of rank and privilege.

George Bush likely could have minimized the "attorneygate" crisis had he fired Gonzales sooner. By holding out, he is letting the scandal escalate.

Moreover, by refusing to allow Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to testify under oath before the Senate, Bush has once again put Dick Cheney's theory of "executive privilege"--translation: the White House should never have to answer any question on any subject--on the line.

As a result, the Gonzales scandal has become a stand-in for a constitutional confrontation between Congress and the White House over the issue that looms over all else--the U.S. war in Iraq.

It's still possible that the steam building up behind this scandal will disperse with a timely resignation from Gonzales and/or a deal between the White House and the Senate Judiciary Committee to allow Rove and Miers to testify on the matter without taking oath. But hardliners in the White House are determined to prevent the total collapse of the Bush administration--and their careers. More crises are likely to come.

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