All Roads Lead to Rove
A fired U.S. attorney speaks out in a new book.
Almost a year ago, I first wrote about the U.S. attorney purge, trying to sort out how and why eight (at the time) high-ranking federal prosecutors could be fired by the Justice Department en masse, without explanation, in December 2006. At the time I suspected there was no simple explanation for the firings: It was likely a messy combination of White House meddling, Rovian attempts to groom new people for future judgeships, a Cheneyesque power grab for the executive branch, and a bunch of dummies on the ground who just didn't realize that what they were doing was going to create a huge stink.
Today we know a little bit more about the U.S. attorney firings, thanks to some zealous congressional oversight and award-winning journalistic coverage by Talking Points Memo. We now know, for instance, how completely bogus was the proffered excuse that these U.S. attorneys were fired for so-called "performance-based" reasons. We also know the extent to which virtually every person on the chopping block had done something to evince a lack of "loyalty" to the president—loyalty meaning placing fealty to the GOP over faithfulness to the law. We know that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was completely complicit in these firings while at the same time almost completely uninvolved in the details, most of which were left to unqualified underlings who treated the dismissals as a monthslong game of paintball.
Eleven of those underlings are gone now, as are most of the overlings. But no one has been disciplined or in any way held to account for the firings, in large part because the new overling has no real interest in getting to the bottom of it. In fact Attorney General Michael Mukasey went out of his way last Friday to block the congressional investigation by declining to refer to prosecutors the House's contempt citations against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers. Both of them had claimed some kind of transitive property-executive privilege in refusing to testify about the U.S. attorney purge last year. As Mukasey has argued and Jonathan Turley has decoded, the Bush administration formulation of executive privilege constitutes a perfect legal möbius strip: "[L]awyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president—and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers."
Between Mukasey's obstruction and the 27 billion or so lost White House e-mails, there remains a lot we still don't know about the purge, and as time goes on, it will be more and more readily consigned to ancient history. Unless of course you're David Iglesias, former U.S. attorney from New Mexico, who is still struggling to understand what happened to his dream job and why. Iglesias, as you may recall, testified before Congress last year that shortly before the 2006 elections, he received phone calls from Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., asking about the timing of indictments in a public corruption case against a Democratic official. After disappointing both nosy parkers with the news that he wouldn't peg the indictments to coincide with the elections, Iglesias was added to the DoJ hit list of U.S. attorneys. He was fired shortly thereafter without warning or explanation.
In his forthcoming book about the scandal, In Justice, co-written with Davin Seay, Iglesias attempts to puzzle out who did him in and why. Like another purged colleague, former U.S. Attorney John McKay from Washington's Western District, who has recently written a long law review article about the firings, Iglesias is persuaded that the nameless, faceless folks who engineered the firings were engaged in serious, if not criminal, wrongdoing. And although the evidence is, he concedes, still mostly circumstantial, one of his chapter titles is "All Roads Lead to Rove." The mild-mannered McKay, for his part, argues for bringing obstruction of justice charges against Gonzales.
What most shines through in the draft copy of Iglesias' manuscript, provided to Slate by the author, are the raw politics animating both his dismissal and the subsequent cover-up. Indeed Iglesias describes that at his very first meeting with then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales in 2001, which took place shortly after he became a U.S. attorney, Gonzales offered him the following warning: "This is a tough town. They are out to destroy the president, and it is my job to protect him."
Iglesias, whose book will be published in June, writes that immediately after receiving the news of his dismissal in December 2006, he put in a desperate call to another U.S. attorney from Texas' Western District, Bush protégée Johnny Sutton. According to Iglesias, Sutton immediately warned him that the firing was a "done deal" and that "[T]his is political. If I were you, I'd just go quietly." When Iglesias, still unaware that this had been a mass firing and ignorant of the basis for his dismissal, pushed Sutton to explain how he knew it was "political," Sutton replied, "I saw your name."
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.