As he prepares to depart the Justice Department, Alberto Gonzales will leave behind him no fewer than a half-dozen separate investigations into his tenure as Attorney General—and the prospect of even more embarrassing testimony about his conduct coming within the next few weeks.
In their brief public comments today, Gonzales and President Bush put the best face on the abrupt resignation of a mild-mannered lawyer who had improbably become one of the most divisive figures in the administration. Gonzales talked about how he had "lived the American dream." Bush praised the service of his old friend from Texas and lamented that "his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."
But the departure won't stop an aggressive internal Justice probe into last year's mass firings of U.S. attorneys that many insiders expect to produce, at a minimum, a damning public report about how Gonzales handled the process. The investigation (headed by the department's respected inspector general, Glenn Fine) has already turned up new documents and e-mails about the purge that have not been made public and that are inconsistent with previous Justice Department statements, according to a key witness who was recently interviewed by the investigators and was shown the material. (The witness asked not to be publicly identified while the probe is ongoing.)
"The drumbeat will continue," said David Iglesias, one of the eight U.S. attorneys fired by Gonzales last year, who has been openly critical of what he suspects were White House fingerprints on the firings. "We still don't know the answer to two basic questions: who put these U.S. attorneys on the list [to be fired], and why they were put there."
Not surprisingly, Iglesias—a Republican who served as U.S. attorney in New Mexico before his dismissal—said today he was "pleased" by the resignation of the man who fired him. "I'm not happy in the sense that this has made my day," he told Newsweek. "But this is a just result. The Justice Department is too important an agency to have been under this cloud."
Gonzales's departure will likely not stop Congress from continuing to hold hearings that are likely to raise still more questions about Gonzales's credibility on a range of matters, including his central role in the controversies over the president's warrantless surveillance program. The Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, has already planned a hearing next month featuring the first public testimony of former Office of Legal Counsel chief Jack Goldsmith. A one-time administration stalwart, he became convinced that Gonzales and other administration officials were breaking the law in eavesdropping on conversations of U.S. residents without judicial warrants, according to multiple former department officials.
It was Goldsmith's advice that prompted then–deputy attorney general James Comey in March 2004 to refuse to approve a continuation of the surveillance program. That prompted Gonzales (then White House counsel) to make an extraordinary nighttime visit to Attorney General John Ashcroft's hospital room in an unsuccessful effort to convince him to overrule Comey.
Democrats have already seized on apparent discrepancies between intelligence community documents and Gonzales's testimony to demand the appointment of a special counsel. (Recently released notes by FBI Director Bob Mueller seem to contradict Gonzales's testimony that Ashcroft was "lucid" and fully able to discuss the matter when the two visited Ashcroft in the hospital room. Mueller in his notes described Ashcroft as "feeble, barely articulate, clearly stressed.")
The upcoming account by Goldsmith was expected to provide Democrats fresh ammunition in their campaign for a special prosecutor. Those demands are hardly likely to go away just because the chief target is leaving the scene. In fact, Democrats—like Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy—have already signaled that they won't drop their probes just because Gonzales has resigned. One White House fear is that they will demand the appointment of a special counsel into Gonzales's conduct as the price for confirming whomever Bush selects as his successor. "It's going to be very tough," said David Rivkin, a former White House lawyer under President George H.W. Bush, who is close to officials in the current White House. "What [Gonzales's resignation] is going to do is frontload a lot of battles on a number of issues: the appointment of a special counsel, document production, FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act)—that otherwise would have been spaced out over the next year."
Rivkin, who has publicly defended Gonzales, said that he believes that it would be "political blackmail" for the Democrats to hold up the appointment of a new attorney general unless they get what they want on those issues. But the belief that they are likely to do so is sufficiently widespread that White House aides and GOP staffers were today floating the idea that Bush may seek a less divisive figure with greater stature on Capitol Hill to succeed Gonzales.
Although Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has been most prominently mentioned, he has potential political baggage because of his role overseeing the department during Hurricane Katrina; it would be especially tricky to announce him during this, the week of the second anniversary of the storm. Chertoff's earlier participation at the Justice Department in reviewing the use of "aggressive interrogation" techniques of terror suspects could also pose a problem. As a result, the list has expanded. A GOP source (who asked not to be identified talking about White House deliberations) said other names mentioned internally by officials in the White House today were former Ohio Republican senator Michael Dewine, former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson, and former Republican senator Jack Danforth of Missouri—all of whom could be easier to confirm than Chertoff.
The eventual nominee will have to deal with the fallout from Gonzales's tenure—both in coping with the results of the ongoing investigations and rebuilding morale in a department that remains badly shaken by the controversies surrounding Gonzales, which triggered the resignations of many top department officials. (In addition to the ongoing investigation by inspector general Fine—which is being conducted jointly with the Office of Professional Responsibility—there is an internal probe into whether a former top Gonzales staffer, Monica Goodling, improperly used political considerations in the hiring of career prosecutors and immigration judges. The House Judiciary Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Office of Special Counsel, and the Senate Ethics Committee are conducting investigations into various aspects of the U.S. attorney purge and the surveillance program. "The morale has never been as bad as its been in recent months," said Iglesias. "You have the attorney general, the deputy attorney, the head of the civil rights division, top staffers all resigning. I don't know that you've seen this many top people leaving—maybe not since Watergate."