The purge, the spin and

Newly released documents show damage-control efforts at the White House and the Justice Department.

Published May 22, 2007 6:32AM (EDT)

On the same day that the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee threatened the White House with "compulsory process" if it doesn't start cooperating with a congressional investigation into the firing of U.S. attorneys last year, the Justice Department has turned over a new set of purge-related documents.

We don't know which came first -- the threatening letter or the document dump -- but we do know that this latest round of documents reveals, with more clarity than before, just how hard the White House and the Department of Justice worked to spin away the problems caused by the firings of federal prosecutors:

Famous last words. On Dec. 18, 2006, the Justice Department's Rebecca Seidel sent an e-mail to several of her colleagues warning them that Republican Sen. Jon Kyl was "significantly disturbed" over the firing of U.S. attorney Paul Charlton and might raise the matter at an upcoming hearing. "We should ensure that the AG is adequately prepared to deal with a question over the firings of the USAs," she wrote. "Do we need a paper on it, or is the AG prepared?" Associate Deputy Attorney General William Moschella brushed her off: "I don't think he will raise this in public," he said of Kyl. As a short-term matter, Moschella was right: Rather than raising any questions about Charlton during Alberto Gonzales' Jan. 18 appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kyl praised the attorney general for his work on terrorism and Internet gambling.

A Joe Conason column. On Feb. 9, Salon published a column in which Conason argued that the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year -- we now know it was nine -- represented "a violation of American law enforcement traditions and ... a triumph of patronage over competence." Shortly thereafter, Mark McKinnon, the former chief media advisor for the Bush-Cheney campaign, sent an e-mail message to Peter Wehner, who runs the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, a Karl Rove invention that the Washington Post has said amounts to "the closest thing the White House has to an in-house think tank."

Why was a private media consultant, who now works for John McCain, communicating with a Rove deputy about Conason's column about firings at the Justice Department? That's not clear from the e-mail chain. What is clear: McKinnon forwarded the column to Wehner, told him that he didn't think Conason was "generally worth responding to" -- don't be hurt, Joe; they feel the same way about the U.S. Senate -- but wondered if there was something "off the shelf" he could use in response to the column. Wehner forwarded the request to Christopher Oprison at the White House Counsel's Office, with copies going to now-departed Gonzales aides Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson. Goodling responded, providing Oprison with a set of documents she identified as "the relevant talkers and statistics" but noting, "We do not have a canned editorial response." When Oprison asked Goodling if it was OK to pass along the information to McKinnon, she said yes because it had already been given to "friendlies on the Hill."

The curious quotation marks. On Feb. 26, Oprison sent a message to Goodling in which he said he needed "to chat about the 'performance evaluations' for the departing U.S. attorneys." He asked her to call him -- some things are better handled outside the White House e-mail system, apparently -- and said that it's a "time sensitive issue for Tony." Tony? Tony? The first Tony that comes to our mind is White House press secretary Tony Snow, who might indeed have been expecting, at that point, to be facing questions about the purge.

An e-mail to Karl Rove? On Feb. 28, Special assistant to the president Scott Jennings sent an "urgent" and "high importance" e-mail to a small group that included Gonzales chief of staff Sampson, White House counsel Fred Fielding, deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino and somebody with the address "" The news: Sen. Pete Domenici's chief of staff had just called to warn the White House that fired New Mexico U.S. attorney David Iglesias would be holding a press conference that day in which he'd say that two members of Congress had pressured him to bring indictments in a politically charged corruption case -- and that he believed his refusal to do so may have had something to do with his firing.

Jennings told Fielding, Perino and "KR" that he would be available to discuss the matter further because, in his words, "once this happens in Albuquerque, the reporters will be asking DOJ and the White House." Jennings told the group that according to Domenici's chief of staff, "Domenici's idea is not to respond" to Iglesias' allegations "and hopefully make this a one-day story." And indeed, when he was first asked about Iglesias' allegations, Domenici said: "I have no idea what he's talking about." Only later did he admit that he was one of the two members of Congress who had called Iglesias about the case -- and that he regretted doing so.

Missing the talking points. When Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse received a copy of Jennings' e-mail, he responded with the operative, if impolitic, question: "My question is why would members of Congress and a U.S. attorney be discussing the timing of a criminal indictment?"

Heck of a Job, Brian. On March 3, Roehrkasse forwarded to his Justice Department colleagues a copy of a Washington Post story on the purge that he said was "far better than most recent Post stories on this subject." The piece minimized White House involvement in the purge; quoting sources, it said that the White House had approved the list of prosecutors to be fired only after "senior Justice Department officials identified the prosecutors they believed were not doing enough to carry out President Bush's policies on immigration, firearms and other issues." For the folks working the issue at the Department of Justice, that amounted to a victory. Deputy Attorney General Richard Hertling declared the Post's piece "by far and away the best story I've seen on the subject" and expressed relief that an accompanying Post editorial -- "The Justice Department's firing of a group of U.S. attorneys is neither as sinister as critics suggest nor as benign as the department would have you believe" -- was "not a bad beating, though against our interests."

"Great work, Brian," Sampson said in an e-mail to the group. "Kudos to you and the [deputy attorney general]."

By Tim Grieve

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

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