I have two new stories on the Huffington Post– one this evening and one from yesterday– about the various investigations being conducted within the Department of Justice of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and the politicization of the Department.
What is clear from both, as well as whatever scant other information we have been able to glean about what investigators are focusing on, is that they apparently are not shying away from examining the role and conduct of the White House– in either the initial White House role in firing the U.S. attorneys– or as my story tonight shows– also the role of White House officials in working with senior political Bush administration appointees to provide misleading information and testimony about the firings to Congress.
I have no inside information about whether a criminal investigation or a special prosecutor’s probe will derive out of the current probes by Justice’s Inspector General and its Office of Professional Responsibility. (I either don’t have sources that good, or that ones that might talk to me aren’t telling.)
But based on what investigators have been looking into, the possibility that a special prosecutor might be named to investigate the U.S. attorney mess might not be as remote as one might have thought.
It still appears much more unlikely than not that one would be named, but with the conduct of so many White House officials being scrutinized, the possibility for one being named for the first time appears to be a threat to the Bush administration.
As to the people and sheer numbers of White House people whose conduct is being scrutinized, here is some excerpts form my HuffPo piece tonight.
The Justice Department investigation into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys has been extended to encompass allegations that senior White House officials played a role in providing false and misleading information to Congress, according to numerous sources involved in the inquiry.
The widened scope raises the possibility that investigators will pursue criminal charges against some administration officials, and recommend appointment of a special prosecutor if there is evidence of criminal misconduct.
The investigators have been specifically probing the role of White House officials in the drafting and approval of a Feb. 23, 2007 letter sent to Congress by the Justice Department denying that Karl Rove (President Bush’s chief political adviser at the time) had anything to do with the firing of Bud Cummins, a U.S. Attorney from Arkansas. Cummins was fired in Dec. 2006 to make room for Tim Griffin, a protégé and former top aide of Rove’s.
The February 23 letter stated, “The department is not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin,” and that the Justice Department was “not aware of anyone lobbying, either inside or outside of the administration, for Mr. Griffin’s appointment.”
Federal investigators have obtained documents showing that Kyle Sampson, then-chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and Chris Oprison, then an associate White House counsel, drafted and approved the letter even though they had first-hand knowledge that the assertions were not true. The Justice Department later had to repudiate the Sampson-Oprison letter and sent a new one informing Congress that it could no longer stand by the earlier assertions.
The Justice Department’s Inspector General (IG) and the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) are jointly conducting the current investigation. Both can initiate disciplinary action only against Justice Department employees and neither has prosecutorial powers.
People close to the investigation say that the investigators’ final report will not only examine the reasons and circumstances behind the firings of the nine U.S. attorneys, but efforts by senior Justice Department and White House officials to mislead the public and Congress about the firings:
“It will be as much about the cover up as about the firings,” said one former senior Justice Department interviewed at length because of his personal role in the firings. This source believes the investigators “are going to tell a narrative, and they have taken their investigation right into the White House.”
If the IG and OPR believe that there is evidence of potential criminal wrongdoing, or evidence of wrongdoing by officials outside its jurisdiction altogether, they can recommend that the Justice Department initiate a criminal investigation.
If senior administration officials or White House officials come under suspicion, a special prosecutor would likely be named.
While a central focus for investigators apparently has been the role played by aides to Rove in the Griffin matter, some witnesses to the investigation told me that they have been asked specifically about Rove’s own personal efforts.
Two former senior Justice Department officials, former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and principal Associate General William Moscella, have separately provided damaging information to the two internal investigative agencies.
Both, according to sources familiar with their still-confidential testimony, said they inadvertently gave misleading testimony to Congress about the firings of the U.S. attorneys because they were misled by Rove himself in addition to other White House figures.
In his March 6, 2007, testimony to Congress, Moscella contended that all but one U.S. attorney was fired because of issues related to their performance. When specifically asked if Rove played any role in the firings, he testified: “I don’t know that he played any role.”
But one day before the congressional testimony, on March 5, 2007, McNulty and Moscella attended a strategy session at the White House in which they discussed Moscella’s testimony and how he should answer allegations that most of the U.S. attorneys were fired because of politics.
McNulty and Moscella told investigators that among the attendees were Rove and Sampson, then Gonzales’ chief of staff. Neither Rove nor Sampson, both men told investigators, told them anything about their own role in the firings even as they encouraged Moscella to say politics had nothing to do with it.
One senior Bush administration official told me that White House staffers talk about their “nightmare scenario” in which any one of the three currently internal DOJ probes “spins out of control” and leads to the appointment of a special prosecutor with broad authority.
And the probe by the Justice Department’s IG and OPR and firings of nine U.S. attorneys is only one of three internal DOJ investigations that have the potential of morphing into criminal probes of the Bush administration–and even the appointment of a special prosecutor. DOJ’s IG is probing whether former Attorney General Gonzales testified truthfully to Congress about the administration’s warrantless electronic eavesdropping program. A probe by OPR is investigating whether government attorneys acted within the law in authorizing and overseeing the eavesdropping program.
Former and current Justice Department investigators caution against assuming that just because White House officials are being scrutinized, a criminal investigation or one conducted by a special prosecutor will be the likely result. They noted that the threshold for initiating a criminal probe is relatively high, and the standard for appointing a special prosecutor even higher.
They also said that cases involving false statements to Congress are considered by prosecutors one of the most difficult to prove, which in turn could lead officials to be reluctant to act in either requesting a criminal probe or pressing for a special prosecutor in the first place.
So there you have it. A special prosecutor might be a long shot. Perjury and false statements cases are difficult to make. But on the other hand, there are a lot of White House people whose conduct is being looked at, and if the Inspector General’s report is strong enough, Democrats are unlikely to pull their punches about pushing for a special prosecutor.
(To read the rest of that first story, click here.)
I’m going to update this post later tonight with some more thoughts.