Prosecutor to Probe U.S. Attorney Firings

An internal Justice Department probe was launched today after a scathing report by Justice watchdogs concluded that the process to remove several U.S. attorneys in 2006 was "fundamentally flawed" and that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other senior Justice officials "abdicated their responsibility" to oversee the process.

The 400-page report by the department's Inspector General Glenn Fine and Marshall Jarrett of the Office of Professional Responsibility falls short of referring criminal charges to a federal grand jury. But the two watchdogs said there are major "gaps" in their investigation because of the refusal of "key witnesses" such as former senior White House adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to be interviewed.

In a letter to the investigators, the Deputy White House counsel declined to provide internal documents for the investigation, writing that "unqualified disclosure" of all documents "would have an adverse impact on the effective provision of legal advice within the White House."

Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed career prosecutor Nora Dannehy to "conduct further investigation" and "determine whether any prosecutable offense was committed." Dannehy will report to Mukasey through the deputy attorney general.

The controversy began more than a year ago when some U.S. attorneys who had lost their jobs alleged that they had been removed for improper political considerations. Gonzales and several other top Justice Department officials resigned their positions after the allegations came to light and Gonzales faced withering questions regarding his knowledge of the firings during heated congressional hearings.

A lawyer for Gonzales released a 42-page memorandum responding to the controversy and saying that it had "blossomed unjustifiably into a classic Washington political imbroglio."

Lawyer George J. Terwilliger III admitted that the process of removing the U.S. attorneys was "flawed" but that after the inquiry by the department "there is still not a shred of evidence to support a conclusion" that the attorneys were removed "for any improper reason."

Terwilliger blames some of the controversy surrounding the removals on the fact that some U.S. attorneys cast "themselves as victims." He writes, "In challenging their removal for less than desirable performance, five of the removed U.S. attorneys struck a match in a politically volatile atmosphere and ignited a political firestorm."

David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney for New Mexico called the statements by Terwilliger "reprehensible." He said it was the job of Gonzales "to protect us from improper political pressure and he failed to do so."

Igelsias told the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2007 that he was asked to resign because he did not respond to pressure from members of Congress to secure an indictment in a public corruption case before the November 2006 election.

Outgoing Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., released statements confirming that they had reached out to Iglesias, but denying they had put any pressure on him.

The Department of Justice report by Fine and Jarrett specifies that its investigation into Iglesias's removal was "hampered" because top White House officials, "whom appear to have significant first-hand knowledge regarding Iglesias's dismissal, refused our requests for an interview."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who held several hearings on the subject, released a statement today saying, "This report might have told us even more if the investigation had not been impeded by the Bush administration's refusal to cooperate and provide documents and witnesses, just as they remain in contempt of Congress for failing to cooperate with the Judiciary committee's investigation."

Leahy expressed frustration by his inability to bring key Bush administration officials in for testimony and said he hoped the newly appointed prosecutor "can break down walls others cannot."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called the report "another confirmation of our suspicions."

"The $64,000 question remains unanswered: how heavily were Karl Rove, Harriet Miers and others at the White House involved in these firings," Schumer asked.

"It is about time that the baton gets passed to a prosecutor with the power to compel answers so that we can finally get at the truth instead of just circling around it," he said.