Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Texas We Have A Problem

Top White House aide Karl Rove continues to portray the U.S. Attorney scandal as "a lot of politics," something for Congress to "play around with." But the continuing allegations of wrongdoing and dishonesty are placing heavy pressure on senior Bush administration figures. "Republican officials operating at the behest of the White House have begun seeking a possible successor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales," whose support among conservative lawmakers has "collapsed," The Politico reported last night. It is a "now a virtual certainty that Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, whose incomplete and inaccurate congressional testimony about the prosecutors helped precipitate the crisis, will also resign shortly." Rove's spin cannot paper over the serious ethical and legal questions raised by the U.S. Attorney purge, and the administration's subsequent effort to cover up its deeds.

THE ETHICS PROBLEM: Several members of Congress -- including Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Reps. Heather Wilson (R-NM) and Doc Hastings (R-WA) -- have acknowledged that they or their offices contacted a U.S. Attorney about an ongoing case, which may violate congressional ethics rules. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) alleges that Domenici's call to U.S. attorney David Iglesias violated an ethics rule stating that "Senate offices should refrain from intervening in such legal actions...until the matter has reached a resolution in the courts," and that "Senators are not to communicate with an agency regarding ongoing enforcement or investigative matters." Wilson and Hastings may have violated similar House ethics rules.

THE LEGAL PROBLEM -- LYING TO CONGRESS: There are at least two instances where Bush administration officials may have violated federal law in the course of this scandal. One involves testimony to Congress by Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty that the Justice Department would never fire U.S. attorneys for political reasons. Subsequent Justice Department e-mails have shown that to be untrue. It is illegal to lie to Congress, and the relevant provision "is very broad." Gonzales has blamed their inaccurate testimony on his former chief of staff Kyle Sampson, who resigned last week after Gonzales said Sampson had provided "incomplete information" to senior Justice Department officials. But as CREW explains, "Federal law provides that if Sampson knew that he was causing DOJ officials to make inaccurate statements to Congress, he can be prosecuted for the federal crime of lying to Congress even though he did not personally make any statements to Congress." Now Sampson's lawyer now says other top Justice Department officials knew of the White House's role. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said last week that "Kyle Sampson will not become the next Scooter Libby, the next fall guy."

THE LEGAL PROBLEM -- OBSTRUCTING AN INVESTIGATION: Secondly, "if the attorneys were fired to interfere with a valid prosecution, or to punish them for not misusing their offices, that may well have been illegal." "Fired San Diego U.S. attorney Carol Lam notified the Justice Department that she intended to execute search warrants on a high-ranking CIA official as part of a corruption probe the day before a Justice Department official sent an e-mail that said Lam needed to be fired," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said on Sunday. Feinstein "said the timing of the e-mail suggested that Lam's dismissal may have been connected to the corruption probe." Congress has also called for an investigation of the removal of Frederick Black, the U.S. attorney in Guam, who was fired after he began investigating criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "Anyone involved in firing a United States attorney to obstruct or influence an official proceeding could have broken the law. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said last week that if an attorney is fired "to stop an ongoing investigation, then you do get into the criminal area."

THE INDEPENDENCE PROBLEM: E-mails show that the Bush administration rated the "performance" of U.S. attorneys on whether or not they were "loyal Bushies." The White House is now justifying its prosecutor purge by arguing that since these attorneys are "political" appointees who "serve at the pleasure of the President," there's nothing objectionable about them being fired for political reasons. But as Feinstein has pointed out, "political" means only that they are appointed by the President. "[O]nce that prosecutor takes the oath of office, that prosecutor must become independent," she said. "That prosecutor must be objective and what I worry about most of all in this is the chilling effect this has on objectivity of the American U.S. attorney who is the main prosecutor for the federal government of big cases under federal law." Likewise, Leahy noted that while there is nothing illegal in a president firing a U.S. attorney, the message it sends to law enforcement is, "You either play by our political rules -- by our political rules, not by law enforcement rules, but by our political rules -- or you're out of a job. What I am saying is that that hurts law enforcement, that hurts fighting against crime." Atlee W. Wampler III, chairman of a national organization of former United States attorneys and a prosecutor who served in the Carter and Reagan administrations, agrees: "People who understand the history and the mission of the United States attorney and Justice Department they are uniformly appalled, horrified," he said. "That the tradition of the Justice Department could have been so warped by that kind of action -- any American should be disturbed."
Under the Radar
ADMINISTRATION -- NO PRECEDENT EXISTS BARRING WHITE HOUSE AIDES FROM TESTIFYING TO CONGRESS: Last week, Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) called on Karl Rove and other top White House aides to testify under oath on their roles in the U.S. attorney purge. In response, the White House and its allies have put up a fight, arguing that presidential advisers have historically not testified in front of Congress. In reality, there is no such precedent. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), under President Clinton, 31 of his top aides testified on 47 different occasions. The aides who testified included some of Clinton's closest advisers such as George Stephanopoulos (Senior Adviser to the President for Policy and Strategy) and John Podesta (Assistant to the President and Staff Secretary). In contrast, between 2000 and 2004, Bush allowed only one of his closest advisers, then-Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Tom Ridge, to appear in front of Congress. He has also refused three invitations from Congress for his aides to testify; Clinton did not refuse any. CRS also notes that although "White House aides do not testify before congressional committees in a regular basis...under certain conditions they do. First, intense and escalating political embarrassment may convince the White House that it is in the interest of the President to have these aides testify and ventilate the issue fully. Second, initial White House resistance may give way in the face of concerted congressional and public pressure."

President Bush's schedule yesterday "originally called for no observation whatsoever of the four-year-anniversary of the war." Before altering his plans, Bush's only public event called for playing host to the 2006 college football champion Florida Gators. He proceeded with those plans in the afternoon, shaking hands and celebrating the occasion. (Video HERE.) But at the last minute, he added a brief public statement, which recycled past Iraq-anniversary speeches and advocated a stay the course approach.  The media quickly echoed the President's talking points, arguing that his escalation is showing "progress" in Iraq. Fox News's Brit Hume said the escalation "does seem to be making a difference so far," even though a senior administration official admitted "right now there is no trend" showing the new strategy is working. Fox News's Neil Cavuto did a segment on "something you are not hearing" -- how many Iraqis are "thanking" the United States for "liberating" Iraq. In reality, a new poll shows that just 18 percent of Iraqis now have confidence in the U.S.-led coalition troops and nearly 90 percent "say they live in fear that the violence ravaging their country will strike themselves and the people with whom they live." Similarly, Kadhim al-Jubouri, an Iraqi weightlifter who was enlisted to help bring down the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, said, "I really regret bringing down the statue. ... The Americans are worse than the dictatorship. Every day is worse than the previous day." Vice President Cheney marked the Iraq anniversary by attending the Hudson Institute Board Dinner at the swanky Union League Club in New York. Yesterday, The Progress Report contacted the Vice President's office to request details about what Cheney would be talking about. "No one in the office can answer that question," said a Cheney staffer. The Hudson Institute -- a proponent of war against Iran -- is home to Cheney's former chief of staff Scooter Libby.

NATIONAL SECURITY -- FBI REWRITES RULES ON PHONE RECORDS: Earlier this month, the Justice Department Inspector General (IG) issued a report detailing the FBI's repeated improper use of so-called "national security letters." The IG found that the FBI "had ignored its own rules when demanding telephone and financial records about private citizens." FBI investigators issued these "secret requests" to several large telecom companies including AT&T and Verizon beginning in 2001. The letters often referenced "exigent circumstances" and promised that subpoenas for the requested information had been submitted to the U.S. Attorney's office and would be served promptly. The IG found that such statements were often false and that "there sometimes were no open or pending national security investigations tied to the request." Further, it was found that in many cases "no subpoenas had actually been requested before the letters were sent." It was later revealed that the FBI had been aware of such "legal lapses" as early as 2005 and, according to one FBI official, had taken steps to "clean up" the problems in 2006 by submitting seven more national security letters to "provide legal backing for all the telephone record requests that still needed it." Today the Washington Post is reporting that the FBI has issued a new set of rules governing requests for phone company records in which the use of national security letters or subpeaons is no longer required. While the rules require that requests be limited to "dire emergencies," such requests can now be made "verbally," relieving agents of "a paperwork burden that was the heart of past problems." FBI Assistant Director John Miller assured the Post that the new rules include "an audit trail to ensure we are doing it the right way." Congress has promised a full inquiry and IG Glenn Fine and FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni will appear before House Judiciary Committee today


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