Justice Department E-Mails Give Insight Into Controversial Firings

March 20, 2007 — -- The Justice Department sent roughly 3,000 pages of internal documents about the firing of U.S. attorneys by courier to congressional investigators late Monday.

These new e-mails provide some insight into why the Justice Department fired eight U.S attorneys, but it's unclear whether their release will be enough to save Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales' job.

The e-mails show that one Justice Department official at the center of the controversy appeared very concerned about senators wanting to investigate the matter.

An e-mail from Gonzales' former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, expresses concern about one of the fired attorneys testifying before Congress. The attorney, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, allegedly declined a request to testify, but sought an opinion from the department on whether he should.

Sampson indicated his concern over questions Cummins would likely have to answer and advised against it.

Some of the questions Sampson feared Cummins would have to answer were "Did you resign voluntarily?" and "Were you told why you were being asked to resign?"

The Justice Department replaced Cummins with an associate of White House political adviser Karl Rove.

Sampson resigned last week amid the controversy.

No Smoking Gun?

But Justice Department officials maintain the e-mails show there is no smoking gun -- nothing indicating that U.S. attorneys were fired to stop them from investigating Republicans, because they would not aggressively pursue Democrats, or for other political motives, an accusation Democrats on Capitol Hill have thrown at the administration.

The documents appear to show that Sampson did keep Gonzales generally aware of the plan to remove the attorneys. Gonzales' staff continues to maintain that the attorney general was not intimately involved.

'A Precarious Position'

Political analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said the staff's claim might not hold up as more information comes out.

"The attorney general is in a position where either he lied directly about his involvement about what the attorney general did, or he was clueless about what his own chief of staff was doing right under his own nose," Ornstein said. "So you've either got dissembling or incompetence, there is no third alternative here. That leaves the attorney general in at best a precarious position."

The e-mails also make clear that initially the fired U.S. attorneys were given no justification for their dismissals.

Margaret Chiara, the former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, at one point wrote, "I need to know the truth to live in peace with the aftermath."

One former Republican Justice Department official said regardless of what the e-mails showed, the handling of the firings was inexcusable.

"The real issue is how do you do it. Do you do it with grace, or do you do it politically dumb, as they have done it, which is to trash people who have devoted years of their lives to government service?" said former deputy assistant Attorney General Victoria Toensing.

The new documents will likely fuel Democratic calls for White House officials to testify before Congress. A constitutional showdown may be looming, as the White House counsel's office could try to exert executive privilege, saying it has a right to keep internal conversations and documents under wraps.

White House counsel Fred Fielding is expected to share his plans on the matter with leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees today.