Straight Arrow

James Comey takes aim at Alberto Gonzales.

Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey. Click image to expand.
Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey

In his testimony before Congress today, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey was quiet, understated, and devastating to Alberto Gonzales.

It took Comey all of an hour and a half to shred Gonzales’ contention that the U.S. attorneys fired last year were dismissed for performance-related reasons. A sample of Comey’s views of the fired bunch:

• On John McKay, former U.S. attorney in Seattle: “I wasn’t supposed to have favorites, but John McKay was one of my favorites. … I think he had a terrific idea and was making a real difference.”

• On Paul Charlton, former U.S. attorney in Phoenix: “I thought he was a very strong U.S. attorney. One of the best … I remember Paul calling me about a death penalty case and turning me around on it. I respected him a great deal.”

• On Daniel Bogden, former U.S. attorney in Nevada: “A very good U.S. attorney. Straight as the Nevada highway and a fired up guy … I visited him and he’d made tremendous strides” in fighting violent crime with a special program run through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

• On David Iglesias, former U.S. attorney in New Mexico: “A very strong U.S. attorney. The Daniel Bogden of New Mexico.”

• On Carol Lam, former U.S. attorney in San Diego: “I spoke to her about her gun cases and about how that was a priority for the department. But my interactions with her were always positive.”

Comey was the second in command at the DoJ from 2003 to August 2005. He took pains to point out that he couldn’t speak to the performance of the U.S. attorneys after he left office. But the Democrats on the House judiciary committee wisely used as their ur-text a March 2005 e-mail from Kyle Sampson to Harriet Miers listing his proposed fires. Sampson rated both Lam and McKay as “weak” and Charlton and Bogden as not having “distinguished themselves either positively or negatively.”

Comey made it clear in response that he had nothing to do with either those assessments or with the process that led to them. “I don’t understand this code they were using, frankly,” he said at one point, not bothering to mask his disgust. Also, “I was not aware of any process going on” by which former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson was preparing a list of U.S. attorneys for dismissal.

Comey’s nothing-but-the-facts account amounts to a brick to Gonzales’ head, not just because of his testimony today, but also because of his reputation. He’s “regarded by all as a straight shooter who has always embodied the best traditions of the Department of Justice,” as Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., put it in his opening statement. Ever since the U.S. attorney scandal broke, Washington lawyers have been quietly saying that none of this would have happened on Comey’s watch (though it should be said that some of the politicization of the civil rights division at the DoJ predates his departure).

Unlike his former boss Gonzales, Comey didn’t play the “I don’t recall” game this morning. When he said he didn’t know about Kyle Sampson’s “process” for recommending, it seemed obvious that he was out of the loop on the firings simply because he had too much integrity to be in it.

And what Comey said about the one brief conversation he remembers having with Sampson about identifying weak prosecutors only further undercut the official DoJ and Gonzales account: “I recall him asking me who did I think was the weakest,” Comey said. “I’m quite sure he didn’t mention the White House, because I would have remembered that.” And did Comey name the prosecutors whom Sampson and Gonzales later decided to axe? Nope, with just one exception: The only former U.S. attorney Comey had a bad word to say about was Kevin Ryan of San Francisco, who’s been roundly criticized for poor management (and who was actually tough to oust because of his Bush connections).

When Comey went into more detail about the various U.S. attorneys, he specifically contradicted and undercut the slightly more detailed rationales Gonzales and the DoJ have given for their firings. Charlton is supposed to have transgressed by recommending against going after the death penalty in one case. Comey not only approvingly cited Charlton for changing Comey’s own mind—and ultimately John Ashcroft’s about a different capital case—he said he would “always encourage” U.S. attorneys to speak out about their views on a death penalty prosecution, because they’re the ones who really know the case background and the facts on the ground.

Lam is supposed to have bucked at following the administration’s directives and screwed up gun and immigration prosecutions. Yet Comey said she never chafed at directives and that when he called her about her record on gun prosecutions as one of 10 U.S. attorneys with low numbers, he told her, “Maybe that’s where you should be,” based on coordination with state and local district attorneys, and advised her to “figure that out.” McKay is now alleged to have annoyed the DoJ by forging ahead with a program to share law-enforcement information nationally. But Comey said he and McKay both wanted to make that their legacy, so that “law enforcement would be able to Google the bad guys.” Need I go on?

Comey also succeeded in upping the ante for the latest revelation to come out of the scandal: the DoJ’s internal investigation into whether Monica Goodling, Gonzales’ former senior counsel (she is 32, but hey, that’s senior enough) hired career-line attorneys based in part on whether they were Republicans. Federal law bars the consideration of party affiliation for these sorts of career jobs. Comey said he’d heard rumors about this issue over the last six months from concerned DoJ-ers. He called the allegations “the most serious thing I’ve heard come up” related to the whole U.S. attorneys scandal. “If that was going on, it strikes at the core of what the department is. You can’t have assistant U.S. attorneys in there based on their party affiliation. … You just cannot have that.” Such partisanship, Comey said, would make it impossible for sheriffs and judges and everyone else involved in criminal cases to trust that the DoJ is a fair arbiter. “I don’t know any way you can get the department’s reputation back about that,” Comey added.

He sounded bitter. He sounded bitter again when Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., asked him what Sampson and Miers and others meant when they discussed the “loyalty” of the U.S. attorneys. “That’s a very good question. I don’t know what they meant by that,” Comey said. “In my view, once you take that job”—working for the DoJ—”you have to be seen as one of the good guys” rather than as partisan. Comey is doing his best to put himself out to be one of those good guys. In an e-mail to Bud Cummins, the fired U.S. attorney from Arkansas, released by the House today, Comey wrote, “I will not sit by and watch good people smeared. What’s that quotation about all that’s necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to remain silent?”

The quotation is attributed to  Edmund Burke. * Comey’s got the gist (if he wants the exact wording, he can buy this poster). Now the lingering question is what happens to all the less good men who are stomping all over his beloved former department.

Correction, May 4, 2007: The original sentence said the quotation was by Burke. In fact, it does not appear in his writings or speeches and likely paraphrases his views. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)