By Ron Hutcheson, Marisa Taylor and Margaret Talev
WASHINGTON - Internal Bush administration e-mails suggest that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may have played a bigger role than he has acknowledged in the plan to fire several U.S. attorneys.
The e-mails, delivered to Congress Friday night, show that Gonzales attended an hourlong meeting on the firings on Nov. 27, 2006 - 10 days before seven U.S. attorneys were told to resign. The attorney general's participation in the session calls into question his assertion that he was essentially in the dark about the firings.
At a news conference last week, Gonzales said that he was aware that his aides were working on a plan to fire several U.S. attorneys but that he left the details to Kyle Sampson, his then-chief of staff, and other aides. Sampson agreed on Friday to testify about his role in the firings at a Senate hearing next week.
"We never had a discussion about where things stood," Gonzales said on March 13. "What I knew was that there was an ongoing effort that was led by Mr. Sampson ... to ascertain where we could make improvements in U.S. attorney performances around the country."
The Nov. 27 meeting in Gonzales' conference room came as Sampson was still trying to decide which federal prosecutors would be asked to step down. His final list targeted seven U.S. attorneys, who were told on Dec. 7 that they were being ousted. Another prosecutor had been asked to step down months earlier.
A Justice Department spokesman said the latest disclosures don't contradict Gonzales' statements that he knew little about the firings.
"This meeting concerned the roll-out of the U.S. attorney plan. The information available to us does not indicate that there was discussion at this meeting about which U.S. attorneys should or should not be on the list," spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.
The explanation failed to satisfy congressional Democrats. Lawmakers from both parties said the attorney general's credibility has been badly damaged by his acknowledged misstatements to Congress regarding the dismissals.
Gonzales' assertion that the White House wasn't involved in the firings were contradicted by other e-mails collected by congressional investigators.
"Another late-night document delivery has produced evidence of the attorney general's involvement much earlier than he previously acknowledged. ... This puts the attorney general front and center in these matters, contrary to information that had previously been provided to the public and Congress," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the latest e-mails could increase the pressure on Gonzales to resign. Sampson's scheduled testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday should shed more light on Gonzales' role.
"If the facts bear out that Attorney General Gonzales knew much more about the plan than he has previously admitted, then he can no longer serve as attorney general," said Schumer, who has already called on Gonzales to step down.
The latest documents also raise new questions about how involved White House political operatives were in the decision to fire the prosecutors.
In a Dec. 3, 2006, e-mail released Friday night, Scott Jennings, one of presidential adviser Karl Rove's aides, asked Sampson if he had a list of "all vacant, or about-to-be vacant, US Attorney slots." Jennings' request came on a Sunday, so Sampson offered to send it to him the next day.
Jennings, a political operative, had earlier passed along complaints from Republican Party activists about U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, who was fired from his job in New Mexico. Some Republicans were angry that Iglesias hadn't been more aggressive in investigating Democrats.
The e-mails also show that administration officials struggled to find a way to justify the firings and considered citing immigration enforcement simply because three of the fired prosecutors were stationed near the border with Mexico. While the e-mails don't provide evidence of partisan motives for the firings, they seem to undercut the administration's explanation that the prosecutors were dismissed for poor performance.
"The one common link here is that three of them are along the southern border so you could make the connection that DOJ is unhappy with the immigration prosecution numbers in those districts," Tasia Scolinos, a senior public affairs specialist at the Justice Department, told Catherine Martin, a White House communications adviser, in an e-mail.
"Which ones are they?" Martin replied.
Scolinos was clearly unprepared for the furor that resulted from the dismissals.
"I think most of them will resign quietly - they don't get anything out of making it public," she told Martin. "I don't see it as being a national story - especially if it phases in over a few months."
Their e-mail exchange on Nov. 17, 2006, offered little hint of the firestorm that's now fueling talk of Gonzales' resignation and threatens a legal showdown between Congress and the White House.
Congressional Democrats suspect that at least some of the prosecutors were fired because they resisted pressure to go after Democrats or to go easy on Republicans. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees have prepared subpoenas to force public testimony on the matter from current and former White House officials if President Bush refuses to make them available.
Congressional investigators are particularly interested in talking to Rove, Bush's chief political operative. Previously released e-mails show that Rove took an early interest in the plan to fire U.S. attorneys, but the extent of his involvement remains unclear.
Other newly released e-mails contradict what Justice Department officials said about revisions in the USA Patriot Act that gave the administration unprecedented powers to replace ousted U.S. attorneys. The changes, approved by Congress last year at the Justice Department's request, let the attorney general appoint replacement U.S. attorneys without seeking Senate confirmation.
In an interview with McClatchy Newspapers, William Moschella, principal associate deputy attorney general, said he pursued the changes on his own, without the knowledge or coordination with his superiors at the Justice Department or anyone at the White House.
However, Moschella's e-mails suggest that he discussed the need for proposed changes with other Justice Department officials on Nov. 11, 2005, around the time when the bill was being drawn up.
"We support eliminating the court's role" in appointing interim U.S. attorneys, Moschella wrote to officials, including Michael Battle, the director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, "and believe the AG should have that authority alone."
The Senate has voted to repeal the change. The House of Representatives is expected to follow suit.