Gonzales Stumped Over Authority Granted to Cheney to Intervene in Justice Probes

During Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing, a freshman Democratic Senator stumped Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on how Vice President Dick Cheney, his chief of staff, and counsel, had been granted authority parallel with the President on intervening in pending matters at the Justice Department.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) questioned the Attorney General about the independence of the Justice Department and communications with the White House on pending cases or investigations.

He then pointed to a May 4, 2006 memorandum signed by Gonzales which showed that the Office of the Vice President had been granted parallel privileges with the Executive Office of the President on communicating directly with the Justice Department's staff on criminal and civil matters.

"What -- on earth -- business does the Office of the Vice President have in the internal workings of the Department of Justice with respect to criminal investigations, civil investigations, and ongoing matters?" the Senator asked.

Gonzales was stumped, "As a general matter, I would say that's a good question."

Whitehouse then pointed out that in the same memo, the Chief of Staff and Counsel of the Vice President were also explicitly granted the same authority.

"On its face -- I must say -- sitting here, I'm troubled by this," Gonzales added.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Vice President said it was not possible to comment without first seeing a transcript of the proceedings.

Senator Whitehouse's office provided a copy of the Gonzales memo to RAW STORY.

Whitehouse discussed the Gonzales memo as it relates to the so-called 'Ashcroft memo,' also provided by Senator Whitehouse's office, which allowed various Executive Office of the President staff to communicate with the Justice Department.

He contrasted both memos to a 1994 letter written by Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno that limited communications on pending cases to conversations between the White House Counsel or Deputy Counsel, the President or Vice President, and Attorney General or Deputy or Associate Attorney General.

Whitehouse noted that there was a difference between seven senior administration members and 'hundreds' of people being able to discuss Justice Department matters.

In addition to granting the staff of the Office of the Vice President the ability to communicate with the Justice Department on civil and criminal matters, Gonzales' May 2006 memo gave Cheney's staff the ability to raise another issue with the Justice Department: 'Presidential Clemency Matters.'

Whether or not Cheney's office has intervened in discussions relating to presidential clemency has been of interest to Congress in recent weeks.

Before the White House commuted the sentence of former Cheney Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) of the House Judiciary Committee asked Cheney to recuse himself from internal White House deliberations on the subject.

White House spokesman Tony Snow did not rule out Cheney's engagement in the discussions on Libby when he discussed Bush's decision earlier in the month.

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