Almost a year ago, I first wrote about the U.S. attorney purge, trying to sort out how and why eight (at the time) high-ranking federal prosecutors could be fired by the Justice Department en masse, without explanation, in December 2006. At the time I suspected there was no simple explanation for the firings: It was likely a messy combination of White House meddling, Rovian attempts to groom new people for future judgeships, a Cheneyesque power grab for the executive branch, and a bunch of dummies on the ground who just didn’t realize that what they were doing was going to create a huge stink.
Today we know a little bit more about the U.S. attorney firings, thanks to some zealous congressional oversight and award-winning journalistic coverage by Talking Points Memo. We now know, for instance, how completely bogus was the proffered excuse that these U.S. attorneys were fired for so-called “performance-based” reasons. We also know the extent to which virtually every person on the chopping block had done something to evince a lack of “loyalty” to the president—loyalty meaning placing fealty to the GOP over faithfulness to the law. We know that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was completely complicit in these firings while at the same time almost completely uninvolved in the details, most of which were left to unqualified underlings who treated the dismissals as a monthslong game of paintball.
Eleven of those underlings are gone now, as are most of the overlings. But no one has been disciplined or in any way held to account for the firings, in large part because the new overling has no real interest in getting to the bottom of it. In fact Attorney General Michael Mukasey went out of his way last Friday to block the congressional investigation by declining to refer to prosecutors the House’s contempt citations against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers. Both of them had claimed some kind of transitive property-executive privilege in refusing to testify about the U.S. attorney purge last year. As Mukasey has argued and Jonathan Turley has decoded, the Bush administration formulation of executive privilege constitutes a perfect legal möbius strip: “[L]awyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president—and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers.”
Between Mukasey’s obstruction and the 27 billion or so lost White House e-mails, there remains a lot we still don’t know about the purge, and as time goes on, it will be more and more readily consigned to ancient history. Unless of course you’re David Iglesias, former U.S. attorney from New Mexico, who is still struggling to understand what happened to his dream job and why. Iglesias, as you may recall, testified before Congress last year that shortly before the 2006 elections, he received phone calls from Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., asking about the timing of indictments in a public corruption case against a Democratic official. After disappointing both nosy parkers with the news that he wouldn’t peg the indictments to coincide with the elections, Iglesias was added to the DoJ hit list of U.S. attorneys. He was fired shortly thereafter without warning or explanation.
In his forthcoming book about the scandal, In Justice, co-written with Davin Seay, Iglesias attempts to puzzle out who did him in and why. Like another purged colleague, former U.S. Attorney John McKay from Washington’s Western District, who has recently written a long law review article about the firings, Iglesias is persuaded that the nameless, faceless folks who engineered the firings were engaged in serious, if not criminal, wrongdoing. And although the evidence is, he concedes, still mostly circumstantial, one of his chapter titles is “All Roads Lead to Rove.” The mild-mannered McKay, for his part, argues for bringing obstruction of justice charges against Gonzales.
What most shines through in the draft copy of Iglesias’ manuscript, provided to Slate by the author, are the raw politics animating both his dismissal and the subsequent cover-up. Indeed Iglesias describes that at his very first meeting with then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales in 2001, which took place shortly after he became a U.S. attorney, Gonzales offered him the following warning: “This is a tough town. They are out to destroy the president, and it is my job to protect him.”
Iglesias, whose book will be published in June, writes that immediately after receiving the news of his dismissal in December 2006, he put in a desperate call to another U.S. attorney from Texas’ Western District, Bush protégée Johnny Sutton. According to Iglesias, Sutton immediately warned him that the firing was a “done deal” and that “[T]his is political. If I were you, I’d just go quietly.” When Iglesias, still unaware that this had been a mass firing and ignorant of the basis for his dismissal, pushed Sutton to explain how he knew it was “political,” Sutton replied, “I saw your name.”
Iglesias emphasizes the extent of the political pressures placed on him to bring indictments that would influence the midterm elections and illuminates the obsessive campaign by New Mexico Republicans to force him into unearthing and prosecuting Democratic vote fraud, even when he’d determined that there was none to be found. He details the phone calls received from Rep. Wilson and Sen. Domenici. And he describes what it was like to be a man with sterling performance reviews suddenly drop-kicked onto “the list” as a result of political complaints about his unwillingness to play ball.
For all that Iglesias’ firing was a disaster, there is comic relief to be found in the e-mails from the DoJ toddlers tasked with managing the exploding scandal. From Kyle Sampson’s smug “Plan for Replacing Certain U.S. Attorneys” to the DoJ’s deliberate efforts to isolate the fired U.S. attorneys in the hopes they would never compare notes, the whole effort was sophomoric. Iglesias reveals the pathetic nature of the negotiations over who stayed and who slid off the list: “I’m a little skittish about Bogden,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, apparently concerned about the Nevada prosecutor’s presence on the list and his ability to find a job outside of government. In what Iglesias depicts as a 90-second meeting convened to address those concerns, then-Counsel to the Attorney General Monica Goodling reassured McNulty that Bogden could be canned without remorse as he had no family to support.
Iglesias reintroduces us to poor overmatched Sampson, former chief of staff to Gonzales, who tried to contain the burgeoning U.S. attorney scandal with after-the-fact “talking points” to be deployed on the enraged ex-prosecutors. (“I wanted to be sure you understood that DOJ intends not to say anything about your leaving … it’s in our interest for you to land on your feet—how can I help?”) But even as he was floating this nonsense, Sampson was desperately out of his league: “Perhaps this is a bad idea? Thoughts?”
And even while the fired attorneys were themselves testifying to Congress last spring, e-mails were flying back and forth between the White House and the Justice Department about how to spin earlier lies. “How do I answer whether we think it was inappropriate for lawmakers to call U.S. Attorneys?” a panicky Dana Perino wrote to Deputy White House Counsel Bill Kelley as Iglesias was testifying. (Um, do you mean “illegal,” Dana?)
“Can’t we just say that we’ll leave it to Congress to examine these questions?” shot back Kelley.
“I could try,” said Perino. But then Bud Cummins, the fired U.S. attorney from Arkansas, was already testifying about an e-mail he’d written about a call from Chief of Staff and Counselor to the Deputy Attorney General Mike Elston, threatening to talk trash about the U.S. attorneys if they spoke out. “What about this Bud Cummins e-mail?” wrote Perino. “This is bad.”
“Very bad,” chimed in Tasia Scolinos, the DoJ spokeswoman, who promptly went to working spinning Elston’s threats as “a collegial conversation” twisted by “former disgruntled employees.”
A year later, the U.S. attorney scandal still matters—and not simply because it ties Karl Rove and Harriet Miers to brazen efforts to manipulate both laws and legal processes for partisan ends. It also has legs because unlike so many of the Bush administration scandals, the trail neither begins nor ends with top-secret legal memos but with dozens of small e-mails, meetings, threats, and phone calls being investigated at various levels of government. Iglesias’ book reminds us that while his former bosses may shred the e-mails, sack the bumblers, obstruct Congress and—quoting Sampson again—try to gum this scandal to death, the truth will come out, eventually. His book is a good start.