The White House was hit by two sudden resignations late Monday, when Paul McNulty, a top Justice Department official, and Lanny Davis, the only Democratic member of the president's civil liberties watchdog board, announced they were stepping down. Both resignations are likely to fuel allegations of White House political meddling in law-enforcement and national-security issues.
McNulty, the deputy attorney general, cited the "financial realities of college-age children" as the reason for his resignation. But a close associate, who asked not to be identified talking about private conversations, said that McNulty's decision to leave now was prompted in part by his disenchantment with both Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and top White House officials over their handling of the U.S. attorney controversy.
In particular, McNulty was stunned last March to discover that Gonzales's former top aide, Kyle Sampson, and White House officials—including deputy counsel Bill Kelley in a crucial March 7 strategy session—had failed to inform him and one of his deputies about the early White House role in the decision to remove the prosecutors, the associate said.
At the same time, Davis, a former Clinton White House official who had been named by President Bush to serve on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board, sent a letter to the White House and his fellow board members protesting the panel's lack of independence. In recent months, Davis has had numerous clashes with fellow board members and White House officials over what he saw as administration attempts to control the panel's agenda and edit its public statements, according to board members who asked not to be identified talking about internal matters. He also cited in his letters criticisms by the former co-chairs of the September 11 commission, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, that the board had interpreted its mandate too narrowly and was refusing to investigate issues such as the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere around the world.
Davis's frustration reached a peak last month, when White House lawyers engaged in what he described in his letter as "substantial" edits of the board's annual report to Congress. Davis charged that a majority of the board sought to remove an extensive discussion of recent findings by the Justice Department's inspector general of FBI abuses in the uses of so-called "national-security letters" to obtain personal data on U.S. citizens without a court order. He also charged that the White House counsel's office wanted to strike language stating that the panel planned to investigate complaints from civil-liberties groups that the Justice Department had improperly used a "material witness statute" to lock up terror suspects for lengthy periods of time without charging them with any crimes.
When Davis protested the attempted deletions, he said the board was told that the White House lawyers feared that because the material witness law was used by U.S. attorneys, a new probe of that issue would become a part of the larger controversy over the firing of U.S. attorneys. "I found this reason to be inappropriate—and emblematic of the sincere view, with which I strongly disagreed, of at least some administration officials and a majority of the board that the board was wholly part of the White House staff and political structure, rather than an independent oversight entity," Davis wrote in his letter.
Carol Dinkins, the chairman of the board, confirmed to NEWSWEEK that the White House counsel's office had in fact objected to the language in the report about the material witness statute and that she had sent an internal e-mail to other board members suggesting that a board probe of the Justice Department's handling of the issue "might be construed" by others as complicating Gonzales's problems at the Justice Department. But Dinkins, a former deputy attorney general in the Reagan Justice Department and a former law partner of Gonzales's, noted that, after Davis's objections, much of the language announcing the board's intention to investigate the Justice Department's material witness law was restored. (The final report also included language about the inspector general's findings relating to national security letters.) "I'm disappointed that Lanny felt he needed to resign because we've had a very collegial and hard working board," she told NEWSWEEK.
Asked to comment, White House spokesman Tony Fratto told NEWSWEEK that "McNulty's letter made it clear that he was leaving for personal and financial reasons. I think that speaks for itself." On Davis, Fratto added: "We appreciate his service and all the work he did. We respect his decision to resign."
The five-member civil-liberties panel was created by Congress in November 2004 as part of a series of government-wide reforms recommended by the September 11 Commission. Its purpose is to monitor whether new counterterrorist measures are unduly infringing on civil liberties. But critics said from the outset that the panel was a toothless watchdog because it was placed within the Executive Office of the President and staffed by White House aides—an arrangement that some critics said made it impossible to be independent. But Dinkins told NEWSWEEK she disagreed. "I think the board can function very well in its current construct, as part of the White House," she said. Lanny Davis plainly disagreed.