Do You Know Why the U.S. Attorneys Were Canned?

The press needs to do a better job explaining what, exactly, happened.

With the release earlier this week of e-mails from the Justice Department about the firings and hirings of eight U.S. attorneys last year, it’s become clear that politics played a critical role in the affair. No one can seriously question this after one e-mail, from Alberto Gonzales’s now former chief of staff Kyle Sampson, ranked all 93 attorneys based on whether they “exhibited loyalty” to Bush and Gonzales or “chafed against Administration initiatives etc.”

The great discrepancy between the content of the e-mails, which show political calculation, and the statements of both the Justice Department and the White House, which claim none, are now at the center of this developing story. Was Congress lied to when it was told that the unprecedented decision to can the eight attorneys (most administrations clean house only at the beginning of their first term, but not their second) had only to do with poor performance?

Though the White House seems willing to fess up to the fact that poor performance was not the main factor, it is trying to avoid the taint that admitting some political motivation would surely bring. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, especially with tamales in your belly. Yet this is what the president, for one, is doing. In Mexico yesterday, Bush said, “I’ve heard those allegations about political decision making. It’s just not true.” The current talking point seems to be that, as the president then said, “What was mishandled was the explanation of the cases to Congress.”

For the most part, articles today focused on these inconsistencies, with reporters forced to read through sleep-inducing e-mail after e-mail between Sampson and Harriet Miers to find moments when their motives seemed less about serving the country and more about protecting their own backsides. The Washington Post has a good roundup of this part of the story, headlined, “Statements On Firing of Prosecutors Are Key Issue.” But after reading a few articles about what was said in public and what was said via e-mail, we were still left with a fundamental question that has yet to be answered: Why, actually, were the attorneys fired?

We suppose this question underlies Congress’ concern that it was misled. But it somehow got lost today amid the accusation that Gonzales is either being less than forthright about using his office to do the president’s bidding, or that he’s as clueless a leader of Justice as Michael Brown was of FEMA.

The Wall Street Journal must be commended for keeping its eye on the ball today, with a piece headlined: “Still Vague: Why Were Prosecutors Fired?”

Nevertheless, the article doesn’t get us appreciably closer to the goal. Even if we assume that the firings were politically motivated, what was the concern that led the Justice Department (and/or the White House) to take such potentially risky steps to eliminate these particular prosecutors? The Journal puts forward some ideas that have been floating around in the past few days. “One possible motive for the moves,” the Journal article says, “was the administration’s desire to reassert control over the appointment of U.S. attorneys and to reward allies with the coveted, and powerful, positions.”

Okay, but this too is vague, and doesn’t go very far in explaining why these specific eight attorneys’ names were blackened. The Journal finally has to admit that, “The administration’s public statements and the materials disclosed so far point to no definitive explanation for the dismissals. Much of the information concerning the individual prosecutors was redacted from the documents.”

We have our own ideas, but these are just guesses. Maybe the administration was trying to get rid of prosecutors who might, like Carol Lam, one of the dismissed, bring corruption charges against Republican law makers (as she did against the disgraced Randy “Duke” Cunningham). There’s also been some talk that these were attorneys who refused to call for grand jury hearings when voter fraud was alleged by Republicans. We do know who took the place of these fired lawyers - administration lapdogs like Tim Griffin, a former GOP operative and protégé of Karl Rove.

We’re not suggesting that journalists could read Gonzales’s or Rove’s mind, or that the press should print conjecture. But this is the question that journalists need to pin the administration down on. It gets to the heart of the matter. As Senator Arlen Specter demanded yesterday, “It’s a matter of whether there is justification for asking those U.S. attorneys to resign. That is the issue, and we need to know a lot more than we’ve been told. Gonzales said yesterday he didn’t know why they were asked to resign. Well, it’s time he knew.”

We second that demand.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.