James Comey takes aim at Alberto Gonzales.
In his testimony before Congress today, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey was quiet, understated, and devastating to Alberto Gonzales.
It took Comey all of an hour and a half to shred Gonzales' contention that the U.S. attorneys fired last year were dismissed for performance-related reasons. A sample of Comey's views of the fired bunch:
• On John McKay, former U.S. attorney in Seattle: "I wasn't supposed to have favorites, but John McKay was one of my favorites. … I think he had a terrific idea and was making a real difference."
• On Paul Charlton, former U.S. attorney in Phoenix: "I thought he was a very strong U.S. attorney. One of the best … I remember Paul calling me about a death penalty case and turning me around on it. I respected him a great deal."
• On Daniel Bogden, former U.S. attorney in Nevada: "A very good U.S. attorney. Straight as the Nevada highway and a fired up guy … I visited him and he'd made tremendous strides" in fighting violent crime with a special program run through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
• On David Iglesias, former U.S. attorney in New Mexico: "A very strong U.S. attorney. The Daniel Bogden of New Mexico."
• On Carol Lam, former U.S. attorney in San Diego: "I spoke to her about her gun cases and about how that was a priority for the department. But my interactions with her were always positive."
Comey was the second in command at the DoJ from 2003 to August 2005. He took pains to point out that he couldn't speak to the performance of the U.S. attorneys after he left office. But the Democrats on the House judiciary committee wisely used as their ur-text a March 2005 e-mail from Kyle Sampson to Harriet Miers listing his proposed fires. Sampson rated both Lam and McKay as "weak" and Charlton and Bogden as not having "distinguished themselves either positively or negatively."
Comey made it clear in response that he had nothing to do with either those assessments or with the process that led to them. "I don't understand this code they were using, frankly," he said at one point, not bothering to mask his disgust. Also, "I was not aware of any process going on" by which former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson was preparing a list of U.S. attorneys for dismissal.
Comey's nothing-but-the-facts account amounts to a brick to Gonzales' head, not just because of his testimony today, but also because of his reputation. He's "regarded by all as a straight shooter who has always embodied the best traditions of the Department of Justice," as Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., put it in his opening statement. Ever since the U.S. attorney scandal broke, Washington lawyers have been quietly saying that none of this would have happened on Comey's watch (though it should be said that some of the politicization of the civil rights division at the DoJ predates his departure).
Unlike his former boss Gonzales, Comey didn't play the "I don't recall" game this morning. When he said he didn't know about Kyle Sampson's "process" for recommending, it seemed obvious that he was out of the loop on the firings simply because he had too much integrity to be in it.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.
Photograph of former Deputy Attorney General James Comey by Alex Wong/Getty Images.