Wednesday, March 14, 2007

That "Overblown Personnel Matter"

It is funny how dismissive phrases have a way of coming back to bite the speaker.  Watergate was first described as a "two-bit burglary," and the termination of seven (or eight, depending on the count) United States Attorneys was denigrated as an "overblown personnel matter" by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.  That little bump in the road required him to hold a press conference to apologize for the Department of Justice providing misinformation to Congress about the role of the White House in the decision.  It turns out that a set of e-mails, an always-dependable gold mine of information, shows that Harriet Miers, then Counsel to the President, and Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, corresponded about the termination of all U.S. Attorneys beginning in early 2005, and the White House played a key role in shaping the process.  The House Judiciary Committee, which released the e-mails (see Committee website here) sent a letter to Ms. Miers (here) asking her to agree to an interview with Committee investigators.  Imagine what a problem this would have been if her nomination to the Supreme Court had been approved.

An e-mail between Sampson, who resigned over the issue, and Miers on March 2, 2005 (here on page 3), discusses a breakdown of the U.S. Attorneys that lists the qualities of those federal prosecutors who would be retained: "strong U.S. Attorneys who have produced, managed well, and exhibited loyalty to the President and the Attorney General." (italics added)  This last point may be the cause of some consternation.  Those who would not be retained were described as "weak U.S. Attorneys who have been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against Administration initiatives, etc." (italics added)  While it is accepted that the U.S. Attorney position is a political appointment, continuing political loyalty may not be consistent with the requirements for being the chief federal law enforcement officer in a district.  It's not clear what it means to "chafe" against Administration initiatives, but one of the standard phrases used by prosecutors is that they "call them like they see them" without regard to politics.  Is that consistent with the Administration's initiatives? 

I also wonder where Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, would rate on this scale.  I suspect he might might be viewed as chafing against the Administration for the prosecution of I. Lewis Libby, although his role as Special Counsel probably makes him bulletproof at this point.  The "overblown personnel matter" shows no signs of abating, especially with the Democrats in control of the Congress, so don't be surprised to hear questions at hearings along the line of "What did you know, and when did you know it?"  (ph)

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