Human Rights

"Even the President Got Involved": Sordid New Revelations About the U.S. Attorney Firings

As a new special prosecutor is assigned to probe the firings, stunning details emerge -- including Alberto Gonzales's fake notes.
Amy Goodman: Attorney General Michael Mukasey has appointed a special prosecutor to continue the probe into whether political misconduct led to the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. The appointment came at the request of a lengthy Justice Department investigation that released its report Monday. Investigators singled out Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for his conduct in the firings, accusing of him of "abdicating" his responsibility and questioning his faulty and evasive public statements.

The report concludes political pressure was the key factor behind the firing of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias and says political pressure played a part in the dismissal of at least two others: Todd Graves of Missouri, Bud Cummins of Arkansas.

Federal prosecutor Nora Dannehy of Connecticut will head the probe. Her appointment has raised hopes she'll have more leeway as a special prosecutor to compel the Bush administration to hand over key documents it refused to give Justice Department investigators. The firing of the U.S. attorneys will likely be remembered as one of the biggest scandals of the Bush administration Justice Department.

Well, shortly after investigators released their report, I spoke to investigative journalist Murray Waas on the phone at his home in Washington, D.C. He has covered the U.S. attorney firings extensively for the National Journal.

Murray Waas: Well, the most interesting thing about it, or what I thought was extraordinary, is that the report says that they couldn't get to the bottom of a lot of what happened with the firing of the U.S. attorneys, because there is a wholesale lack of cooperation by senior White House officials. Karl Rove refused to cooperate with the investigation, give them an interview. Harriet Miers, who was the White House counsel at the time and an architect of this, refused to be interviewed. Two deputy White House counsel declined to be interviewed.

The White House refused to give over documents. They refused to give over emails. To show you the absurdity, some of the emails and documents that they've refused to give to their own Justice Department, I published them in a story. Somebody in the administration leaked them to me. And so, they're a matter of public record.

And so, essentially, you have one part of the government, the White House, refusing to cooperate and assist the Justice Department in a very important oversight function. And, you know, I would add that the lack of cooperation, the refusal to talk to investigators, the refusal to turn over documents, is virtually unprecedented.

AG: And yet, the report was scathing. Talk about what they did find.

MW: Well, the report did find that the firings -- no surprises for those who have followed this or most of your listeners -- but the firings were politically motivated. The U.S. attorneys were fired to make room for people who were more ideologically or politically attuned to the White House.

A lot of it had apparently to do with the voter fraud agenda, where some Republicans, like Karl Rove, thought that they were losing because of reported voter fraud by constituency groups associated with Democrats. These U.S. attorneys actually investigated these claims by the White House, but just couldn't bring cases, and they couldn't find any evidence of this. And so, again and again, Karl Rove, people at the White House pressed for the removal of specific U.S. attorneys.

And the U.S. attorneys who they did remove -- one of the things getting lost in the coverage today is that these were the best and the brightest of our public servants. These were considered the cream of the crop and some of the finest U.S. attorneys we've had in a generation.

AG: Among the most troubling allegations in the report was the firing of the U.S. attorney of New Mexico, who has really spoken out since, actually written a book, David Iglesias. And he talked on Democracy Now!, as well as other places, about the pressure he felt, which he felt was inappropriate, on him from both Senator Pete Domenici, as well as Congress member, who is now running for senator, Heather Wilson.

MW: Well, what we found out in the report today is that after Senator Domenici made these inappropriate phone calls, asked for information about investigations, tried to press Iglesias to bring an indictment before an election to help a Republican get elected, that Domenici was then lobbying and speaking with political appointees and White House folks to get Iglesias fired. In other words, the U.S. attorney wasn't doing what he wanted, so the senator then simply went to get the guy fired, and nobody questioned the propriety of that or the intrusion of politics into the process.

AG: The removal of the Missouri U.S. attorney, Todd Graves, went from Senator Kit Bond right through to the White House?

MW: Right. I mean, interestingly, Todd Graves, who I know and like, is a conservative Republican, was a Bush supporter, an exceptional U.S. attorney, not as well-known as some of the others because he kept quiet about his firing 'until the very end. But a Republican senator of his own party didn't like him, because he had a feud with his brother or for some other obscure reasons, so the senator -- once again, you just have a senator saying, "I want a different U.S. attorney," and they get rid of Todd Graves.

And I wrote a column about Todd Graves. Todd Graves has done some extraordinary things. When he was in college, he was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma and wasn't given very long to live. And Todd Graves underwent a course of very toxic and deadly chemotherapy that saved his life. He got better, became a lawyer, became U.S. attorney in Kansas City.

And then, when he was a U.S. attorney in Kansas City, he had a case brought to him by the FBI … It's a pretty notorious case … This pharmacist had watered down tens of thousands of prescriptions, including 4,000 chemotherapy prescriptions for cancer patients. So, essentially, this pharmacist was … killing people, killing cancer patients. So, Todd Graves, the cancer survivor who almost died of lymphoma, whose life was saved by chemotherapy, grows up to be U.S. attorney, who puts in prison probably the single person who's most hurt cancer patients. And that's an extraordinary story.

And these were the type of people who were fired, basically just because of the phone call from a senator or a phone call from a politician, just because they weren't aligned. And I think what's left out of this or what gets lost is the human dimension of this, like John McKay of Washington State, Iglesias, Paul Charlton. I got to know some of these U.S. attorneys. They were the best of the generation. And James Comey, the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, when he testified on the Hill, he said that these were U.S. attorneys who were the best, who inspired him, and of the 93 U.S. attorneys, it's almost like they went out of their way to fire the best ones. So, you know, the loss to the public is profound.

AG: Talk about how it went up the chain of command, especially Miers and Rove, now the FOX commentator -- also Kyle Sampson, the chief of staff of Gonzales.

MW: Well, even the President got involved. The President got complaints, I think, about David Iglesias. Karl Rove got complaints, then passed them on, and David Iglesias was fired. But, essentially, this came from the White House. Even though the White House didn't cooperate with the investigation, even though they didn't turn over documents, and people like Karl Rove and Harriet Miers thumbed their nose at the investigators, the report was still able to find that the general outline of this plan originated in the White House. The firings came from the White House. And this was something that happened at the highest level.

AG: What was it that the White House particularly didn't like, for example, about David Iglesias in New Mexico?

MW: Well, they had an issue with him about voting fraud. That was with a number of these U.S. attorneys. They weren't, supposedly, investigating supposed voting fraud by Democrats or by African Americans or the disabled -- all these groups that they thought that were getting away with voting fraud.

And that voting fraud issue largely turned out to be a myth. There has been studies. The New York Times did a long piece about it. There really isn't a lot of this supposed voting fraud. So, whether it's a myth or an effort by Republicans to suppress votes or to intimidate voters is unclear, but that was one issue.

But the other one was simply that they had pressured Iglesias. The Republican Senator Domenici and Heather Wilson had called him and said, "Why don't you speed up the indictment of this person so we can win an election?" And then, something like that, as crass as it is and as simple as it is, they fired him.

AG: So, Murray Waas, what happens now? The Attorney General Michael Mukasey has appointed the acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut, Nora Dannehy, to lead an investigation, a special prosecutor who prosecuted the former governor of Connecticut, John Rowland. What powers does she have that the IG's office doesn't have, that the OPR, the Office of Professional Responsibility, didn't have?

MW: Well, she has prosecutorial powers. The Office of Professional Responsibility and Inspector General don't have prosecutorial authority, can't subpoena witnesses, can't compel testimony, except if they're current DOJ employees. And so, she has the power to bring criminal charges. She has the power to impanel a grand jury, compel testimony, and get more to the bottom of this.

It's unclear, though, what her independence of the Justice Department is or how much authority she has, or whether she's actually -- what we tend to think of it as a special prosecutor. The press might be getting it -- you know, getting it wrong. And there's no press account at the moment of exactly, you know, what her independence or latitudes or powers are.

AG: … I asked [Waas] about two articles he wrote in that relate to the attorney firings scandal, called "The Case of the Gonzales Notes" and "What Did Bush Tell Gonzales?"

MW: Myth, deception … Gonzales is still under investigation, or will be, by the acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut as to whether he lied to Congress about the firings. And he's currently under investigation for lying to Congress or perjury in regard to what he told Congress about their surveillance program.

But what the story in The Atlantic said was that Gonzales created a fictitious set of notes … so that President Bush could reauthorize their surveillance program at a time the Department of Justice had concluded it was outside the law or of dubious, you know, legality. And so, they needed a pretext. They needed some rationale. And so, Gonzales simply made up a set of notes that wasn't inaccurate, but a total lie -- an extraordinary act for an attorney general.

AG: And where are those notes?

MW: Those notes -- well, they're highly classified. Ironically, the investigators had a hard time getting them. So they're conducting a perjury investigation, but they claim the notes were originally too, you know, classified for the investigators to look at. Once they got a look at them, they found out something extraordinary, which is the Attorney General apparently created a set of notes recounting a meeting with members of Congress, eight congressional leaders, known as the Gang of Eight, and these eight congressional leaders, according to his notes, said that they wanted the President to continue on with their surveillance program, even though the Department of Justice refused to certify it as legal and was questioning its legality. And based on that, Gonzales and Bush signed the reauthorization of the program.

But the members of Congress who were there say it's a complete lie -- they never said anything of this sort, they never did anything of this sort. So Gonzales wrote a false account in these notes, so, in case they got in legal trouble or, you know, let's say there was an -- even impeachment was quite possible if this had become known, but also public relations. All of these things probably played a role in why Gonzales made up these notes. But he essentially fabricated a set of notes to authorize a surveillance program that, in its form at the time, the Department of Justice said was of dubious legality.

AG: You also say Alberto Gonzales, according to sources, now claims President Bush personally directed him to that famous visit to the hospital bed of the former Attorney General John Ashcroft in that wiretap renewal incident. Explain exactly what happened in 2004.

MW: What happened was, we had this surveillance program, we had this warrantless eavesdropping program. The Department of Justice had certified its legality (an office called the Office of Legal Counsel). And they had a guy come in -- a new guy named Jack Goldsmith -- conservative, conservative credentials, handpicked by Gonzales, liked by the President. And this was a guy who not only had conservative credentials, but believed in the law. So he ordered a legal analysis done of the program, and he realized, came to the conclusion, as did other people in the Department of Justice and throughout government, that the program as it was being carried out at the time, was of dubious legality and probably illegal. And so, he wrote this legal opinion that it was illegal.

He brought that to the attention of James Comey, the Deputy Attorney General. Comey then talked to then-Attorney General Ashcroft. And there was a consensus by the Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, throughout the Department of Justice, that they couldn't certify the program as legal anymore, and it would have to discontinue. And if it continued, though, you'd have the President perhaps breaking the law. You'd have an extra-constitutional, you know, illegal program. So the Justice Department refused to certify it.

It was at that point -- on a single day, March 10th, 2004, I believe, that Gonzales and Dick Cheney met with the Gang of Eight, these eight congressional leaders, and they said, "We have this problem. The Department of Justice isn't going to certify this program as legal. We think it's so important to the country, we want it to continue." And the Gang of Eight, the eight congressional leaders, refused to go along. They said that they did nothing to encourage them. But after that meeting, Gonzales creates this false set of notes saying the Gang of Eight wants us to continue on with this program.

And so, they have like one day to get the program reauthorized. And so after they have these phony notes, later that evening, Gonzales and Andrew Card, the President's chief of staff at the time, they go and visit John Ashcroft, the then-attorney general, in the hospital. John Ashcroft is clinging to life, deathly ill. He has been in intensive care. He had his gall bladder removed in emergency surgery. He's heavily medicated, sedated, in pain, not competent to sign any legal papers or to think of anything, you know, so complex. And so the Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who's acting attorney general has refused to reauthorize the program or say it's legal. So Card and Gonzales go to the Attorney General's hospital room in an attempt to get him to sign the certification. And so, that's how we end up with the dramatic scene in the hospital that night.

AG: We just interviewed Barton Gellman of the Washington Post, who wrote the book Angler about the Cheney vice presidency, how the government almost fell soon after that, when, finally, the President called in Comey and said, you know, "Why am I dealing with this at the last minute?" and Comey had already written his resignation letter and said that Mueller was going to resign as well that day over this.

MW: Well, to take a couple steps back, before that, what happened in the hospital room was, the Attorney General's wife, Mrs. Ashcroft, informed her chiefs of staff what was going on. And then he called up -- he called everybody -- Comey, Mueller -- and so, they all raced to the hospital. They careened down Pennsylvania Avenue with their sirens on. They raced up the steps. And James Comey, the very straight-arrow Deputy Attorney General, got to the hospital room about five minutes before Gonzales and Card. And Mueller, the FBI director, to give you an idea of this drama told the security detail, Ashcroft's security detail, under no circumstances were Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales to be alone with John Ashcroft, that James Comey was to be with them at all times, because he didn't trust them, you know, to be alone with Ashcroft.

And so, in the hospital room, Gonzales and Card come in and make their case. And Ashcroft, who's deathly ill, somehow pulls himself up just for a moment, before he collapses, and says, "I'm not Attorney General. There is the Attorney General; James Comey is the Acting Attorney General. Deal with him." And so, they leave, not getting Ashcroft's signature.

And so, what they do the next day is they decide to go ahead with the program without the Attorney General's signature. And so, what they did is they had a computer-generated copy of this document, and they simply removed the place where the Attorney General should sign and put a line for Alberto Gonzales to sign. And so, Gonzales and the President signed this authorization to continue with this program, despite the fact that their own Justice Department said if they did so, they'd be doing something illegal.

And then, it was the following day that Comey and Mueller kind of argued with them some more, and Bush, you know, backed off and withdrew the authorization or agreed to work with it until it got, you know, within a legal framework.

AG: And so, now, coming full circle, where does that leave Alberto Gonzales, and what is he doing today, and what do you think he should be doing?

MW: I think he's spending a lot of time with lawyers, and he has this U.S. attorney investigation he has to face. But I think the greater legal jeopardy is lying under oath about the surveillance program and this new thing, creating these fictitious notes, because when Gonzales and Bush signed the authorization, it was these fictitious, made-up notes that was (part) of the basis for the President to sign it. So that's a very serious issue. And so, there are so many legal threats to this particular former attorney general.

AG: And these are criminal?

MW: They're criminal, yeah. The appointment today of the prosecutor in Connecticut brings the investigation to a criminal basis. The inspector general didn't have that prosecutorial power or authority, so now Gonzales is facing a criminal investigation on the U.S. attorney thing, and then, of a greater liability or greater threat to him legally is about the surveillance program.

AG: Investigative journalist Murray Waas, wrote for And this piece of news: Alberto Gonzales's former chief of staff, Ted Ullyot, has just been hired as general counsel for the social networking site Facebook. Gonzales is still struggling to find a job with a private law firm.
Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!