Can anyone tell the truth?

Gonzales is said to be on the ropes, but the scandal over purged prosecutors goes far beyond him.

Published March 16, 2007 3:25AM (EDT)

Two more congressional Republicans have now called for the resignation of Alberto Gonzales, and Chuck Schumer says he has learned that the White House is having an "active and avid discussion" about whether the attorney general will have to go.

The problem for the White House: Gonzales isn't the only problem.

As we learn more about the process that led to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year, it has become increasingly clear that a whole host of Bush administration officials -- some at the Justice Department, some at the White House -- have seriously misrepresented what actually happened.

Some, like principal Deputy Attorney General William Moschella, have done it under oath. At a March 6 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers asked Moschella: "Was anyone at the White House consulted, or did they offer any input in compiling the list of U.S. attorneys to be terminated -- to the best of your knowledge?" Moschella's response: "The list was compiled at the Department of Justice." Conyers: "But was the White House consulted?" Moschella: "Well, eventually, because these are political appointees ... we would -- which is unremarkable -- send the list to the White House and let them know." Later in the same hearing, Rep. Hank Johnson asked Moschella if it was possible that there had been other conversations about which he might not know. His response: "Well, Congressman, in preparation for this hearing, I did, I think, the appropriate amount of due diligence to collect the facts, and so while anything is possible, I believe I know."

The truth, as established by e-mail messages leaked to the press Thursday, is that the process of dumping the U.S. attorneys actually started at the White House in early 2005, when Karl Rove and Harriet Miers started asking about the possibility of firing some or all of the sitting U.S. attorneys.

The e-mails also show that Gonzales had at least one discussion about the issue while he was still White House counsel. On Jan. 9, 2005, Kyle Sampson -- who would later become Gonzales' chief of staff at Justice -- said that he had talked with Gonzales about the idea of firing U.S. attorneys: "As an operational matter, we would like to replace 15-20 percent of the current U.S. attorneys -- the underperforming ones. (This is a rough guess. We might want to consider doing performance evaluations after [Gonzales] comes on board.) The vast majority of U.S. attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc., etc."

Sampson noted that senators might object if their home-state U.S. attorneys were fired. But, he said, "if Karl thinks there would be political will to do, then so do I."

The Justice Department issued a statement Thursday saying that Gonzales doesn't remember the conversation described in Sampson's e-mail message.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said earlier in the week that the thought of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys was Miers' idea and Miers' idea only, a claim belied by the e-mail messages showing Rove's early involvement. Now Snow is saying that Rove actually opposed the idea of canning all 93 prosecutors -- a notion reflected exactly nowhere in the January 2005 e-mail exchange and seemingly contradicted by Sampson's statement about what "Karl" might think about the political will to proceed.

Of course, Snow isn't the only one who seems to have been caught in a lie on Rove's behalf. (Anyone remember Scott McClellan's insistence that Rove wasn't involved in the outing of Valerie Plame?) Last month, Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling said in a letter to Schumer that the Justice Department was "not aware" that Rove had played "any role" in the decision to give his former aide Tim Griffin a U.S. attorney job in Arkansas -- a claim pretty seriously undercut by a subsequently released e-mail message in which Sampson said that getting Griffin appointed was "important to Karl, Harriet, etc."

As for Rove himself? He says the people who are making a stink over the U.S. attorney purge -- a group that now includes "loyal Bushies" like Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions -- are just "playing politics." He would certainly know.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Department Of Justice Karl Rove War Room