Just a few weeks before Levin was asked to leave, White House Advisor Karl Rove and Gonzales were involved in discussions over the dismissals of several U.S. attorneys. Nine were dismissed the following year, and the matter erupted into a scandal, with critics alleging the administration saw the US attorney posts as patronage positions.
Congress held hearings to explore whether the attorneys had been dismissed for improper political considerations, and the matter now is under investigation by the inspector general of the Department of Justice. Although Gonzales denied ever asking for resignations for "partisan political gain," he and several top officials at the Department of Justice ultimately resigned in the wake of the controversy.
Months later, after Levin left DOJ and took the NSC job, Gonzales' chief of staff wrote a memo that included Levin's name as a possible replacement for the U.S. attorney position in San Francisco, not Los Angeles.
But sources say Levin would never have been a serious contender for that office because of earlier work he had done there. He worked in the office in 1999, as counselor to then-U.S. Atty. Robert Mueller, during an extensive and highly contentious effort to reshape it.
Levin could not be reached for comment.
Late Wednesday, one former senior official says Levin was forced out at DOJ, in part, because the administration believed his torture opinion was too critical.
Levin had criticized an earlier Justice Department opinion on interrogation techniques written by former Office of Legal Counsel Deputy John Yoo. That controversial memo narrowly defined torture as only techniques that result in "death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function."
In June 2004, the Justice Department's Jack Goldsmith withdrew Yoo's opinion, finding it flawed and poorly reasoned. When Goldsmith resigned, Levin was tasked to write a new memo on torture policy to replace Yoo's original one.
A former administration official said Levin pulled no punches in his memo — even referencing liberal scholar Anthony Lewis, a harsh administration critic, in a footnote.
Yet, within weeks of releasing it — and while drafting a second, major memo that analyzed whether specific techniques like waterboarding were legal—Levin was asked by Gonzales to leave the Justice Department.
Sources say the administration believed Levin could not be counted on to "come out the right way" on interrogation issues, as well as another controversial anti-terrorism program involving warrantless wiretapping.
Levin, a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Chicago Law School, was seen by some in the administration as too independent, sources said. For example, while analyzing specific interrogation techniques, he went to a military base outside Washington and personally underwent waterboarding, which he concluded qualified as torture, unless done in a narrow way with close supervision.
Levin refused to discuss the waterboarding experience in his congressional testimony Wednesday.
Levin was replaced at DOJ by Stephen Bradbury, who remains today as "acting" head of the Office of Legal Counsel because the Senate has refused to confirm his nomination. Bradbury ultimately wrote the second memo on specific interrogation techniques that Levin had been working on before his ouster.