Bush Aides Ducked Questions on Prosecutor Firings

Karl Rove shows up most nights these days as a commentator on Fox News and offers up political insights in columns for the Wall Street Journal and NEWSWEEK. But when Justice Department investigators tried to ask him about his role in the mass firings of U.S. attorneys, the former White House political chief would say nothing, refusing to be questioned at all.

According to a blistering new report by the Justice Department inspector general released Monday, Rove was one of a number of former White House officials (including ex-White House counsel and Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers) who declined to cooperate with its investigation into the U.S. attorney firings-even though the current White House counsel's office encouraged them to do so.

The result of that stance led Attorney General Michael Mukasey today to take the extraordinary step of appointing a new special prosecutor (with full grand jury subpoena power) to investigate the U.S. attorney firings. He did so, he said in a statement, because "important questions" about the mass purge of prosecutors remain "unanswered" and "further investigation" is needed to determine whether federal crimes were committed in the decision to fire some of the U.S. attorneys or in providing false testimony to Congress about why the dismissals had taken place.

The massive (and long-awaited) 392-page report excoriates former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other onetime senior Justice Department officials for presiding over a "fundamentally flawed" and "unprecedented" process to summarily remove nine U.S. attorneys-and then mislead the Congress about why they had done so. And it lays the basis for Mukasey's action by concluding there was "significant evidence that political partisan considerations" played a major role in some of the firings-most notably in the dismissal of David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico.

The inspector general uncovered new evidence showing how New Mexico Republican Party officials repeatedly tried to pressure Iglesias to launch vote fraud investigations that could boost the party's prospects in federal and state elections. "This is the single best wedge issue ever in NM," one state GOP lawyer wrote in an email to Iglesias that was copied to the New Mexico GOP chairman and a host of party officials in the state.

But when Iglesias concluded there was not enough evidence to bring such cases, the state GOP chairman and others were infuriated and brought their complaints to Washington-including to Rove and his political deputies in the White House. The state GOP's complaints prompted Rove (and President Bush himself) to raise the issue with then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Those complaints-coupled with the annoyance of GOP Sen. Pete Domenici about Iglesias' failure to bring an election eve indictment against a leading state Democrat in Oct. 2006-prompted Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, to suddenly put Iglesias on the list of prosecutors to be fired in November, 2006, the report concludes.

"Because of complaints by political officials who had a political interest in the outcome of these voter fraud and public corruption cases, the Department removed Iglesias, an individual who had previously been viewed as a strong U.S. attorney," the report states. (The report concludes that if Iglesias was fired as part of an attempt to influence the decisions on particular cases, it could constitute "obstruction of justice" or a conspiracy to defraud the public of his "honest services.")

The report dismisses later testimony to Congress by Gonzales and other top Justice Department officials that Iglesias was fired because he was an "under-performer" and an "absentee landlord" as "disingenuous after-the-fact rationalizations that had nothing to do with the real reason for Iglesias' removal."

"I've always believed that Rove was front and center in this mess," Iglesias told Newsweek in a telephone interview today. But he said he was not surprised that the former White House chief political aide (along with Miers and two other former White House officials) rebuffed the attempts by Justice inspector general investigators to question them about their actions in the U.S. attorney firings. "They have the right against self-incrimination like anybody else," said Iglesias.

Rove and his attorney, Robert Luskin, did not respond to repeated request for comment. Rove and Miers had previously refused to answer questions from Congress about the firings, citing White House claims of executive privilege. But as inspector general Glenn Fine noted in the report, the claim of executive privilege did not apply in this instance, since the Justice Department is part of the executive branch itself-one key reason, the report says, that the White House counsel's office "encouraged" current and former employees to cooperate with the probe. (The White House refused, however, to turn over its own internal emails about the U.S. attorney firings as well as a full copy of a special internal memo, prepared for White House counsel Fred Fielding last year about the firings, citing what it called "confidentiality interests of a very high order.")

Iglesias, a Bush appointee who served as the model for the Tom Cruise character in the movie "A Few Good Men," said Monday that the new evidence in the report shows how New Mexico Republican officials and White House aides like Rove fundamentally misunderstood his duties as U.S. attorney. The report documents how the state GOP chairman wrote one email to Iglesias proposing that he become part of "the [Republican] party's voter fraud working group." (The email was copied to other state GOP officials as well as the chiefs of staff of GOP Rep. Heather Wilson and Sen. Domenici in Washington.) But Iglesias ignored the request. "I was a law enforcement official," he said. "It wasn't appropriate for me to join any partisan team."

The report does criticize Iglesias, saying he engaged in "misconduct" by failing to report his election-eve phone call from Domenici to senior Justice officials in Washington as he was required to do under Justice guidelines. And it dismisses some of the charges of congressional Democrats about the U.S. attorney firings last year-concluding, for example, that the dismissal of Carol Lamm, the U.S. attorney in San Diego, had nothing to do with her aggressive corruption prosecution of a GOP congressman. Instead, it was related to her failure to more vigorously bring immigration and gun cases, as department officials wanted.

The report did find there may have been political factors in some of the other U.S. attorney firings in Missouri, Washington, and Arkansas. But the investigators could not get to the bottom of the matter-and in particular determine the role White House officials played-without the cooperation of key witnesses like Rove, the report found. The newly appointed special prosecutor, a career official named Nora Dannehy, who is now serving as acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut, will have more leverage. Unlike the inspector general, she will be empowered to subpoena the reluctant witnesses-and have a federal judge hold them in contempt if they fail to comply. But Iglesias, for one, isn't holding his breath. "I don't think we're going to get the answers while this administration is in office," he said.