Erasing the distance between the White House and Justice

The White House Counsel's Office signed off on a misleading letter about Rove's involvement in the prosecutor purge.

Published March 29, 2007 1:58PM (EDT)

The White House has repeatedly sought to distance itself from what it has called the "incomplete" information the Justice Department provided Congress about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last fall.

That just got harder to do.

With the release of additional e-mail traffic Wednesday, we now know that the White House signed off on a misleading Feb. 23 letter to senators in which Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling discussed the firing of Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins and his replacement by Friend of Rove Tim Griffin.

In the course of drafting that letter for Hertling, former Alberto Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson -- who testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee today -- wrote: "The Department of Justice is not aware of anyone lobbying for Mr. Griffin's appointment. The question of whether Mr. Griffin (who then was on active military duty in Iraq) might be considered for appointment as U.S. Attorney upon his return was addressed by the Department of Justice and the White House consistent with prior practice ... The Department is not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin."

Sampson forwarded his draft to William Kelley and Christopher Oprison at the White House Counsel's Office. It's not clear whether Kelley responded, but Oprison did; he sent what appear to have been relatively minor changes to Sampson, and Sampson incorporated those changes into the draft letter.

The statements about "lobbying" and Rove remained relatively unchanged. Which is to say, they remained deeply misleading if not completely false -- and both Sampson and Oprison seem to have known as much. In an e-mail message Sampson sent to Oprison in December 2006, Sampson told Oprison that he knew that "getting [Griffin] appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc." Yet in the letter Sampson drafted -- the letter Oprison approved -- the acting assistant attorney general tells the Senate that the Justice Department isn't "aware of anyone lobbying" for Griffin's appointment and isn't "aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision."

Sampson's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee is beginning any minute now. So far, it seems that he's not going to join his colleague Monica Goodling in taking the Fifth. We'll see if that changes once senators get to asking him about the Feb. 23 letter. And we can only imagine what Oprison would have to say for himself if he were forced to testify about the matter under oath.

By Tim Grieve

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

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