THE WORST IN HISTORY: ALBERTO GONZALES MUST GO!

Originally Posted: April, 2007

 

The dishonesty and incompetence that are the defining characteristics of the Bush Administration are personified by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; in fact I consider him to be the worst Attorney General in the history of the United States – and I’m including the Nixon Administration’s John Mitchell (who signed off on the Watergate break-in) in that assessment.  As I write this, Gonzales is up to his eyeballs in controversy, and deservedly so.  There has been much made of the firings of eight United States Attorneys, but his troubles are hardly limited to that scandal.  There are at least two other scandals brewing that are far more serious.

 

We begin with the scandal surrounding the United States Attorney firings.  US Attorneys are, as Gonzales has correctly pointed out, political appointees who serve “at the pleasure of the President” (This has also been repeated ad nauseum by the likes of Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and others who mindlessly repeat the designated “talking points”).  True enough.  However, once appointed, these US Attorneys are supposed to be independent of political pressures, and these eight firings have the appearance – at the very least – of having been politically motivated, thereby serving as a warning to the remaining eighty-five US Attorneys to tow the line – or else.  Make no mistake: that message was received loud and clear.

 

The explanations that have been put forth by various Justice Department officials (including Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and Justice Department Spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos) have been inconsistent and have been shown to be false by documents (emails, memos, etc.) that have been released by the Justice Department and by the White House.  Attorney General Gonzales’ own statement, at a hastily-arranged press conference on March 13th, 2007, claiming that he “was not involved in any discussion” about the firings was followed by the revelation that he had attended a meeting with his top aides on November 27th, 2006 – just ten days before the firings – and that the firings were the topic of the meeting.  On March 29th, 2007, Gonzales’ former Chief of Staff, D. Kyle Sampson, testified under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Gonzales had participated in “at least five” meetings on the firings over a period of two years and had other encounters in which the “strengths and weaknesses” of individual prosecutors were discussed, adding, “I don’t think the Attorney General’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions of US Attorney removals was accurate”. [An interesting note: in the face of this testimony, the White House did not stand in support of Gonzales; instead Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said, “I’m going to have to let the Attorney General speak for himself.”]  The Attorney General has now “clarified” his earlier statements, acknowledging that he “mis-spoke” during the March 13th press conference, and that he “had a role in approving” the firings, but again denied he was involved in the process of selecting which US Attorneys would be fired.  He has also pointed out (in that same March 13th press conference) that in a Justice Department of 110,000 people, he can’t know every decision that is made. This is certainly true of minor, routine decisions, but the mid-term firing of eight US attorneys is not a minor, routine decision. This claim – essentially proclaiming his ignorance of major decisions in the Department of Justice – is an astonishing admission of incompetence on his part; Gonzales seems to be completely out of his depth in the post of Attorney General.  In a possible indication that the storm swirling around Gonzales is about to get worse, another of his top aides, Monica Goodling, who had served as the liaison between the Justice Department and the White House, has announced that she will invoke her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than voluntarily testify about these firings before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.  This is likely to be the opening salvo in Goodling’s bid to obtain immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony, which one has to assume would be damaging to both the Justice Department (specifically Attorney General Gonzales) and the White House.  UPDATE (5/25/07):  Goodling was granted immunity from prosecution and testified to a number of violations, including that political party affiliation was taken into consideration in the hiring of career Justice Department employees (a violation of federal law), and that Alberto Gonzales met with her in March and asked for her recollections regarding the US Attorney firings, apparently in an attempt to “get their stories straight”.  Goodling testified that the March meeting made her very “uncomfortable”.  Gonzales had previously testified that he had not discussed the firings with any of his staff, out of respect for the ongoing investigation.

 

This could get interesting.

 

Gonzales himself testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 19th, 2007, and faced harsh criticism – and even calls for his resignation – from not just Democratic Senators, but from Republican Senators as well, including Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Charles Grassley of Iowa.  In fact, only one of the nineteen Senators on the Judiciary Committee, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, spoke in defense of Gonzales.  During his testimony, for which he reportedly “prepared” for two weeks prior to his appearance before the Committee, Gonzales answered “I don’t recall” no less than 74 times – including to such obvious questions as when he approved the firings, which staff were involved in the process of selecting the individual US attorneys to be fired, and on what grounds the eight fired US Attorneys were fired.  He had to have expected these specific questions to come up during the hearing, so if he wasn’t prepared to provide the answers, exactly what did his two weeks of “preparation” consist of?  Clearly, he was not preparing to answer the most fundamental questions regarding the firings of the US Attorneys; therefore he must have been preparing to NOT answer them!  His overwhelmingly underwhelming performance failed to make any case for his continuing in office, yet President Bush praised Gonzales’ performance before the Committee, saying that the testimony had actually increased his confidence in Gonzales.

 

Another “talking point” – the notion that these firings were “performance-related” – has been shown by these same documents to have been developed after the fact in an attempt to contain the controversy. The various claims against the performance of the eight fired US Attorneys have also been undermined by their previous performance evaluations, which had been excellent.  The fired US Attorneys themselves have protested against these “performance-related” claims, calling them “outrageous”.

 

It is difficult to believe that it is simply a coincidence – and not a politically-based motivation for the firings – that each of these fired US Attorneys just happened to have prosecuted Republicans or had not pursued investigations against Democrats aggressively enough to satisfy the Bush Administration.  For example, Carol Lam, the US Attorney for San Diego, California, was responsible for the successful prosecution of former Rep. Randall “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA), and had expanded that case into an ongoing investigation of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), leading to the indictments of two defense contractor lobbyists.  David Iglesias, a US Attorney in New Mexico, had received calls from both Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Representative Heather Wilson (R-NM), pressuring him to file indictments against local Democrats before the November, 2006 elections, but Iglesias refused to rush the investigation to fit a political calendar (four indictments were handed down in that investigation on March 29th, 2007; two other individuals have pled guilty).  Senator Domenici and Representative Wilson (who was involved in a very tight race for re-election) had then both complained to the White House; D. Kyle Sampson (Gonzales’ former Chief of Staff) testified – and documents confirm – that Iglesias’ name was not added to the list of US Attorneys to be fired until October, 2006 – right about the time that Domenici and Wilson were voicing their complaints.  A US Attorney in Washington State, John McKay, had resisted White House pressure to investigate “voter fraud” in the November, 2004 gubernatorial race there – an especially close race that was won by the Democratic candidate, Chris Gregoire, after a manual recount was upheld by a Superior Court Judge – pointing out that neither the FBI nor investigators in his office had found any evidence to warrant such an investigation.  He has recently revealed that he was questioned about that decision in highly partisan terms by White House Counsel Harriet Miers and her deputy at a meeting in September, 2006 – just three months before being fired.  A US Attorney in Arkansas, Harry Cummins, was specifically told he was being fired to make room for Tim Griffin, a former aide and protégée to Karl Rove; this has been now acknowledged by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty in sworn testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Given all this, it is not unreasonable for the Congress to insist on investigating whether these firings were politically motivated; there is easily enough “probable cause” to pursue an investigation.

 

President Bush’s insistence that he will not allow his advisers, including Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, to give testimony about these firings to the Congress under oath, under a blanket claim of “executive privilege”, and the President’s apparent willingness to go all out in a Constitutional confrontation over the issue, is a measure of just how embarrassing this scandal could become for the Bush Administration. As Jon Stewart asked on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, “Why can’t Karl Rove just put his hand on a Bible and tell the f**cking truth?”  The Bush Administration clearly has much to hide, but they will lose the “executive privilege” argument.  “Executive Privilege” only applies to communications with the President himself; there has never been a right of “executive privilege” for communications between White House aides, or between White House aides and the Justice Department.  By claiming that his aides’ emails, memos, and discussions are protected under the doctrine of “executive privilege”, therefore, President Bush is tacitly acknowledging that he was personally involved in these communications – if he were not, there would be no protection of “executive privilege” for these communications.  Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have authorized the use of subpoenas for various White House and Justice Department officials, including Rove and Miers.

 

This could get very interesting.

 

Yet another “talking point” that has been endlessly repeated on the right-wing talk shows is that President Clinton fired “all 93″ United States Attorneys when he took office.  Close, but not quite true, and besides – President Bush did the same thing when he took office!  The actual numbers are that President Clinton had 89 new US Attorneys in his first two years in office; President Bush had 88 new US Attorneys in his first two years.  In fact, it is entirely normal for a new President to replace the US Attorneys upon entering office.  This is standard practice and goes back at least to President Ronald Reagan who, like President Clinton, had 89 new US Attorneys in his first two years in office.  The practice even pre-dates President Reagan; James S. Brady, who served as the US Attorney for Grand Rapids, Michigan under President Jimmy Carter – and was replaced by President Reagan – has said, “When Carter lost in November of 1980, I resigned.  Nobody asked me, but it’s the tradition of the office…when a new Administration comes in, everybody knows you will have a new US Attorney.” (emphasis added)

 

When confronted with this fact, Bush Administration officials and surrogates have tried to differentiate between the actions of Presidents Clinton and Bush.  Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, for example, argues that, while the Bush Administration “called each [US Attorney] and had them give us a time frame.  Most were gone by late April [2001]”, the Clinton Administration “told [US Attorneys] in early March [1993] to be gone immediately.”  It seems to me that attempting to draw a distinction between being “asked to give a time frame” and being “told to be gone immediately”, and between early March and late April (one-and-one-half months compared to three months into a new Presidential Administration), is a question of semantics and splitting hairs, and – again – the truth contradicts the Bush Administration; only 80 of the 93 US Attorneys were replaced during the first year of President Clinton’s Administration.  Among those who stayed longer was Michael Chertoff, who served as a US Attorney in New Jersey under President George H. W. Bush, and stayed over a year under President Clinton, resigning in 1994 (Chertoff is now President Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security).

 

The truth is that this whole line of reasoning is a “red herring” – while it is normal for a new Presidential Administration to replace the US Attorneys (especially when the incoming and outgoing Presidents are from different parties), it is virtually unprecedented for US attorneys to be fired mid-term.  Looking back over the last hundred years, only ten US Attorneys have been fired mid-term, and all ten had been clearly shown to have engaged in wrongdoing (convicted of spousal abuse, assault, and so on).  There is simply no precedent for firing so many US Attorneys at once in the middle of a Presidential term, and certainly no previous example of US Attorneys being fired for political reasons, as it appears may have been the case with these firings.

 

While it will be interesting to see how this scandal (and potential Constitutional confrontation between the Congress and the White House) plays out, I am far more concerned with two other scandals swirling around the Attorney General.

 

First, in the midst of the scandal over the US Attorney firings, massive abuses of the USA PATRIOT Act committed by the FBI (which is part of the Justice Department and is therefore overseen by the Attorney General) in obtaining phone, banking, and other records – on literally hundreds of thousands of American citizens – came to light.  Attorney General Gonzales had previously told the Congress that his Justice Department would never abuse these provisions, yet it happened anyway – another indication that Gonzales is out of his depth as Attorney General.  These abuses have been overshadowed by the scandal over the US Attorney firings, but are far more threatening to our liberty, and deserve serious investigation.

 

Second, and in my view the most devastating to Attorney General Gonzales’ continued tenure in office, is the revelation that Gonzales conspired with President Bush to block an investigation into himself!  I have previously written on this website (click here to read it) about how President Bush had “gone deep into Nixonian territory” by abusing his Presidential power in order to block a Justice Department investigation.  Specifically, the Justice Department’s internal ethics unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) had been attempting to investigate the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping program (click here for a detailed discussion of this program), but their investigation had to be shut down in April of 2006 when the necessary security clearances for the OPR investigators were denied. Attorney General Gonzales testified before the Congress in July, 2006 that it had been President Bush himself who had made the decision to deny the security clearances, a decision which served solely to successfully block the OPR investigation (and thus constituted an Abuse of Power on the part of the President), but it has now been revealed that President Bush made that decision based on the advice of Attorney General Gonzales (a fact that Gonzales conveniently left out of his July, 2006 testimony), which creates an obvious conflict of interest: as White House Counsel at the time, Gonzales had played a key role in formulating the “legal justification” (if you want to call it that) for the warrantless wiretapping program, meaning that Gonzales himself – along with the President – would likely become a target of the OPR investigation.  The fact that Attorney General Gonzales and President Bush acted in concert to block an OPR investigation of which they both were likely to become targets represents a blatant ethical lapse (on both their parts) which undermined the investigators in Gonzales’ own Justice Department ethics unit.  Not since John Mitchell and Richard Kleindeinst (two of the four Attorneys General during the Nixon Administration) were both convicted of felony obstruction of justice has an Attorney General been shown to be so corrupt.  Nevertheless, President Bush has repeatedly affirmed his continuing support for his Attorney General, and Gonzales insists he will not resign.

 

But there is another option: the Congress could impeach Gonzales.  Article 2, Section 4 of the United States Constitution reads, “The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States[including the Attorney General], shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” (emphasis added)   Obstruction of Justice, such as acting to block an investigation into yourself, qualifies under any legitimate definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors”; if Gonzales won’t resign and the President won’t fire him, the Congress could – and should – impeach and remove Attorney General Gonzales from office.

 

This could get very, very interesting.

 

I have called on Gonzales to resign before (when he was White House Counsel, for reasons relating to his legal advice on the Geneva Conventions being obsolete and on the definitions of torture).  Instead he was promoted to Attorney General of the United States.

 

I don’t believe that Gonzales will survive these scandals – the only question is the nature and timing of his departure – but I consider each and every day of his continued tenure as Attorney General to be a national disgrace.

 

Alberto Gonzales should resign, be fired, or be impeached – now.

 

UPDATE (7/27/07): Gonzales’ sworn testimony before Congress has now been contradicted in sworn congressional testimony by his own Chief of Staff, Kyle Sampson, by the Justice Department’s White House liaison, Monica Goodling, by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and even by FBI Director Robert Mueller, leading to congressional requests for a special prosecutor to investigate whether Gonzales committed perjury, and even an impeachment effort against Gonzales in the House of Representatives.  The pressure builds…

 

UPDATE (8/29/07): Gonzales announced his resignation on August 27th, but Senator Patrick Leahy and Rep. John Conyers, chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, respectively, have both made it clear that their investigations into Gonzales’ actions will continue.

 

© 2007 by David Bleidistel.  All rights reserved.