TOPICS > Politics

Report Prompts Inquiry Into U.S. Attorneys’ Dismissal

September 29, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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After the Justice Department issued a report to investigate the dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys, Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed a criminal prosecutor. NPR's justice correspondent Ari Shapiro explains.
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RAY SUAREZ: And for more on that, we’re joined by Ari Shapiro, who has been covering the story today for National Public Radio.

Well, that big report landed on Washington’s desk today. What is it?

ARI SHAPIRO, National Public Radio: It’s almost 400 pages looking back at this 18-month fiasco. It’s basically a chronicle of one of the worst times in the Justice Department’s history, examining in detail why each of these nine U.S. attorneys was fired, who made the decisions, whether the justifications were, in fact, the justifications that people publicly gave to Congress and other investigators.

And it just reads like an indictment of everybody who was in charge of the Justice Department during that period of time.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s a new attorney general at the Justice Department or a successor attorney general in charge. What was his reaction, Michael Mukasey’s reaction to what was in this report?

ARI SHAPIRO: The most significant thing he did today was to accept the number-one recommendation of the report, and that recommendation was to appoint a special prosecutor who would look into the allegations that the inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility, who conducted this inquiry, were unable to get to the bottom of.

The investigators in this report did not have cooperation from the White House. They did not have cooperation from some key members of Congress.

And so, at the end of this massive report, they say, “You know, we’ve laid out everything we can here, but it’s not everything there is to know. We can’t reach a final conclusion on whether crimes were committed,” so they recommended this special prosecutor be appointed. And Mukasey chose a woman from Connecticut, Nora Dannehy, and she’s going to be looking into this going forward.

Prosecutor could shake things up

RAY SUAREZ: Does a special prosecutor have the power to ask for things from the very people who wouldn't talk to the investigators who prepared this report, Karl Rove, Harriet Miers, the former presidential counsel, and Attorney General Gonzales himself?

ARI SHAPIRO: Prosecutors have the authority to ask for those things, but it's a very different context from the inspector general's inquiry, which was always predicated on the notion that whatever they found out was going to be made public.

When a prosecutor convenes a grand jury and calls witnesses in front of the grand jury and those witnesses testify, typically everything that happen there is secret. And unless anybody is indicted, the public may never know what happens before a grand jury.

And so, as a prosecutor goes forward with this investigation, she may be able to compel Harriet Miers, and Karl Rove, and others to testify, but if it's grand jury testimony, we may never know what is said, unless somebody gets indicted at the end of it.

Of course, people still have their right to not testify against them, the right against self-incrimination, taking the Fifth, and some of them may do that, but otherwise prosecutors can compel testimony from whomever.

RAY SUAREZ: The firing of the federal prosecutors in question became the subject of highly contentious hearings on Capitol Hill. But did one prosecutor more than any other in these several firings sort of attract the attention of the people preparing the report?

ARI SHAPIRO: Yes, the investigators come to the conclusion that the case of David Iglesias, who was the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, was the most problematic of the nine that they looked into.

And when I say problematic, what I mean is they concluded that it looks likely that -- they said there is substantial evidence to indicate that Iglesias was fired for improper partisan political reasons.

The way U.S. attorney appointments work is you can fire them for a good reason, you can fire them for no reason, but you can't fire them for a bad reason.

And the evidence suggests in this report that Iglesias was fired because he refused to indict Democrats before Election Day. Pete Domenici, who's the Republican senator from New Mexico, had complained to Iglesias about this. When Iglesias didn't indict those Democrats and didn't respond to Domenici's complaints, Domenici went to the White House, he went to Alberto Gonzales, and then Iglesias was fired.

So the question is, was Iglesias fired because he wouldn't prosecute Democrats before the election? If so, there's a potential obstruction of justice charge in there. But as I said, the investigators were unable to reach that conclusion, so that's one thing the prosecutor will be looking into going forward.

White House silence halted progress

RAY SUAREZ: The investigators weren't able to talk to Pete Domenici either, were they?

ARI SHAPIRO: That's right. He refused to talk. Harriet Miers and Karl Rove, both of whom were involved in this process, refused to talk.

And so the inspector general was really frustrated by this. In fact, they tell one story in this report about the White House creating a timeline of the U.S. attorney firings.

The White House shared that timeline with one of the offices in the Justice Department called the Office of Legal Counsel. And then when the investigators went and asked the Office of Legal Counsel for this timeline, the White House instructed the Office of Legal Counsel not to share the timeline with the investigators.

So today in Congress we had some Democratic senators saying, "Where was Attorney General Michael Mukasey during all of this?" The Democratic senator from Rhode Island, Sheldon Whitehouse, said, when Attorney General Mukasey heard that the White House was telling the Office of Legal Counsel not to cooperate with this, why didn't Mukasey go to the White House and say, "If you don't cooperate with this investigation, I'm no longer your attorney general"?

So there was some criticism for the attorney general, even as people applauded him for appointing this prosecutor.

RAY SUAREZ: Of all the personalities involved in this report, it looks like former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales himself came in for some very rough treatment.

ARI SHAPIRO: It is a blistering criticism of Gonzales. I mean, as I said, everybody at the top of the Justice Department comes in for harsh criticism.

But this report again and again says Gonzales was not able to recall what happened, that he gave false and misleading statements to Congress, that he had poor judgment, that he was just absent from this process.

And, you know, his lawyer today told me they're gratified that this report did not find any criminal wrongdoing on Gonzales' part. But the fact is the report did not conclude that Gonzales didn't break any laws. The report said, "We can't reach that conclusion because we don't have all the answers."

RAY SUAREZ: Do they ever come right out and say that they don't believe what he told them about the events that took place?

ARI SHAPIRO: They never say that he lied, but there's one passage in here where they sound very dubious. And they say -- the exact quote escapes me, but it's something like the number of times that he was unable to recall and the extent of his uninvolvement in this seems hard to believe. That may not have been the exact words, but that's the direction in which they go.

Investigating criminal wrongdoing

RAY SUAREZ: Does the fact that Michael Mukasey has gone this next step and appointed a career prosecutor to investigate this mean that the Justice Department has concluded that there may have been criminal wrongdoing involved with these firings?

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, I hate to get picky, but it depends on what you mean by "there may have been" criminal wrongdoing. I think from the very beginning there were accusations that there may have been criminal wrongdoing.

The Justice Department is now conducting a criminal inquiry to see whether there was, in fact, criminal wrongdoing, whether they can indict someone and accuse someone of breaking the law.

Those laws could be obstruction of justice. It could be perjury. It could be false statements under oath to Congress. So that's now in the hands of the prosecutor.

RAY SUAREZ: And the prosecutor herself, Ms. Dannehy, has to report back to the attorney general while the Bush administration is still in office, correct?

ARI SHAPIRO: That's right. Attorney General Mukasey instructed her to report back 60 days from now. And he didn't make clear whether that's going to be a public report or whether he'll keep it private.

My sense of this is there is so much interest in this from Congress, from the public, from the prosecutorial and legal community that there's going to be a lot of pressure to make something public after 60 days, whether or not we know everything that she tells the attorney general at the end of this.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Ari, almost a guarantee that this matter will have a life that extends into the term of the next president?

ARI SHAPIRO: Absolutely. These are not the sorts of things that get resolved in two months. And so we can expect that this turmoil, this chaos that has roiled the Justice Department for years now, for at least the last two years, is going to continue on into the next administration, whoever that is.

One former U.S. attorney -- who was not fired in this mess, but who served under President Bush -- who I spoke with today told me he thinks it's going to take years and years and many, many more attorneys general before all of the damage that was caused by this debacle is fixed.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you've been covering this story all along and you've been through the report. Was there something there that just didn't come out in the hearings that, when you saw it, you said, "Wow, I didn't know that"?

ARI SHAPIRO: You know, there were impressions we got from the hearings that people were uninvolved, that people didn't necessarily look into the real reasons folks were being fired.

But to see in this report that, after examining tens of thousands of pages of documents, after conducting hundreds of hours of interviews, after talking with dozens and dozens of people, that they can definitively say no one made an effort to determine why any of these individuals was being replaced, that they can say nobody made an effort, not one person, to make sure there were no improper partisan political considerations. That was pretty stunning to me.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR's Ari Shapiro, thanks for joining us.

ARI SHAPIRO: My pleasure.