When can we put the “consensus” of the senior leadership of the Department of Justice, CSLDJ (pronounced Con Sell Dodge), under oath and ask it questions and then impeach it?
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales assured the Senate Judiciary Committee today that nothing improper has been done and that, in addition, he’s not to blame for it, because he simply obeyed the CSLDJ, although he does not actually remember having done so. And if members of the CSLDJ contradict Gonzales or have acted in ways he does not approve of, well, you’ll just have to ask Mr. Sampson about that.
Kyle Sampson, Gonzo’s Chief of Staff, is a gentleman who well deserves his name given the apparently superhuman feat he’s performed of running the Department of Justice for years in exactly the direction his boss did not want it to go. That being said, Gonzales stands by every decision he never made, even the ones he remembers not making.
Daniel Metcalf, a senior attorney at the DOJ who retired in January, recently suggested that Gonzales’ Justice Department is run on the basis of consensus and group responsibility precisely because that minimizes personal risk, and that minimizing personal risk is the top goal of many new people at the Justice Department, whose inexperience in the processes of government is “surpassed only by their evident disdain for it.” The buck doesn’t stop anywhere.
At most, the Attorney General is responsible for a nickel or so of it. And this dodge is not completely ineffective. While several Senators Thursday morning tried to pin Gonzales down on what specifically he had done, only one Senator briefly touched on the point that Gonzales is actually responsible for what his chief of staff does, even if Gonzales claims to have known nothing about it; nor did any Senators even raise the question of the President’s responsibility.
A number of bloggers have followed through the finer points of this scandal, and some of them prepared questions ahead of time that they hoped the Senators would ask. At least in the pre-lunch session of the hearing that I watched, the Senators did not live up to the standards of the bloggers. Of the long list of questions posted at Slate, for instance, some were asked or partially asked, but others missed entirely. And the five lines of questioning so powerfully laid out by The Anonymous Liberal set much too high a mark for a hearing led by these Senators, and possibly for any hearing in which only short blocks of time are available to Senators alternating between Democrats and Republicans. (Which reminds me of the other question raised by this hearing: Is there a way to forcefully ask Orrin Hatch to join the eight attorneys in retirement?)
This was the first question the Anonymous Liberal wanted asked:
“Is it your testimony, sir, that the President was not involved in this process, that you made the final call?
“If no: Please explain the extent of the President’s involvement. Did he sign off on the final list? Was he given prior notification that these eight attorneys would be asked to resign?
“If yes: You are aware, sir, are you not, that by statute, the power to remove U.S. Attorneys belongs to the President, not the Attorney General? …Is it your practice to exercise exclusively presidential powers without getting the president’s signoff?”
Anon had this follow up:
“The Albuquerque Journal recently reported that Senator Pete Domenici called you in the Spring of 2006 and told you that he wanted David Iglesias removed from his position as U.S. Attorney for New Mexico. According to the Journal, you refused and told Domenici that you would only do so on orders from the President. Is that account accurate?”
While the Senators never rose to this level of sharp questioning, Thursday’s hearing began well — with Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT.) stressing that testimony the AG had already provided under oath had been contradicted by new evidence. Nothing Gonzales would later say provided reason to doubt that he has committed perjury.
Leahy then remarked on the historic nature of the crisis and pointed out that the 2006 election “rejected a unitary approach to government, an administration without checks and balances.” He denounced “Katrina-style cronyism and unfettered White House unilateralism.” He even said that Gonzales “cannot expect immunity for the policies of torture he developed as White House Counsel.” But why can’t he? He was already made Attorney General, wasn’t he? His boss at the White House goes on torturing, doesn’t he?
Ranking Member Arlen Specter (R-PA.), who is usually much better at talking than acting, did indeed talk a good line, addressing Gonzales this way:
“You said you were not involved in any discussions, and then your subordinates testified to the contrary. You said you did not see memoranda, but your subordinates testified under oath you were at meetings where memoranda were distributed. You said you were not involved in deliberations, but your subordinates said you were. You have a heavy burden of proof to reestablish your credibility.”
Two more Senators spoke briefly before Gonzales’ opening remarks. Charles Schumer (D-NY.) came out swinging. He called for a minimum of “I don’t recalls” and of “meandering answers that take up time but don’t answer the question… If the Attorney General cannot answer a straightforward question, how can he possibly run the department?” Schumer pointed out that overwhelming circumstantial evidence indicates that the firings of eight U.S. Attorneys were made for political reasons. If Gonzales could not give a clear reason for each firing, he added, he would not lift that burden of guilt.
As soon as Schumer was done, Jeff Sessions (R-AL.) launched into meandering nonsense that meant nothing. And as soon as he was done, Gonzales did the same.
He had already done so in prepared testimony, which is available in full PDF or in relevant excerpt form, as are other key background documents and videos. Gonzales’ opening statement can be summarized in these phrases: “I should have been more precise,” “My misstatements,” “I accept full responsibility,” “I have always sought the truth,” “I have been extremely forthcoming,” “This committee has thousands of pages… and hours of interviews,” “Nothing improper occurred.”
And even though nothing improper occurred, Gonzales assured the committee that he has truly learned and that Americans care less about mistakes than about “what you do to set things right.”
Through the course of questioning by Senator Leahy, Gonzales said that he had met with the President on October 11, 2006, and Bush expressed concerns about “voter fraud.” Actually, Gonzales initially used the phrase “election fraud,” but made clear that he really had in mind a mythical epidemic of “voter fraud.” Specter then laid out a chronology:
December 2004: you talked to Sampson.
June 1, 2006: in email Sampson discussed your plans to remove [Fomer San Diego prosecutor Carol] Lam.
June 4 or 5: Attorney Mercer discussed with you Lam’s performance.
June 13, 2006: Sampson says you consulted on removal of [Arkansas prosecutor] Bud Cummins.
Oct. 11, 2006: you went to White House to talk with Rove and Bush about your vote fraud concerns, came back and told Sampson to look into it, including in New Mexico.
Nov. 2006: you attended a meeting with Sampson, Monica Goodling, etc., about the proposed removals.
“Do you think it’s accurate to say you only had a limited role?” Specter asked. A good question, but not a clear-cut yes or no question of the sort a Senator should know how to ask.
Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA.) wondered if Gonzales had read the reports on the attorneys who were fired, the standard job performance reports that go by the DOJ acronym EARS. The AG replied that he had not. In two cases, he claimed, he was not even aware of any reasons for the firings he approved, but in the others he was independently aware of problems with the attorneys.
Sam Brownback (R-KS.) then gave Gonzales a relatively friendly forum in which to provide, unchallenged, the reasons he claims each attorney was fired. His response on the first of them, Nevada’s top federal prosecutor Daniel Bogden, was that he did not know why he was firing him. Three breaths later, he claimed that he struggled over the decision. San Francisco prosecutor Kevin Ryan, he said, was so poorly reviewed that they had to send out a second EARS team, although he, of course, being the Attorney General, did not read such reports. Arkansas prosecutor Bud Cummins was supposedly canned primarily because there was “another well-qualified individual” they wanted to give the job to.
Now would have been the time for some Senator to recall having read Greg Palast’s article in the current issue of In These Times arguing that the replacement candidate, Timothy Griffin, former deputy research director for the Republican National Committee, rather than being well-qualified, is an out-and-out criminal.
Under questioning by Dianne Feinstein (D-CA.), Gonzales admitted that he had been “the decider,” that he had indeed made the decision to fire the attorneys — sort of — and that he’d read the EARS reports — maybe — but given them “appropriate weight.” Under questioning by Russ Feingold (D-WI.), Gonzales added, without blinking, that he had not asked for, or learned, the justifications for the firings. So, said Feingold, you had no basis for telling readers of your op-ed in USA Today that the attorneys had “lost your confidence.” Gonzales cited the CSLDJ and said, “I will say I regret those words.”
(The USA Today editorial page had another view. It asked the Attorney General: “Which time were you telling the truth? Gonzales has bounced from one account of his role in the dismissals to another. On March 7, he wrote on this page that the fired prosecutors ‘simply lost my confidence.’ Six days later, he contradicted his writing and portrayed himself as clueless, saying he ‘was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions.’”)
Two more Senators put up an effort to get a straight answer on something before lunch, Charles Schumer (D-NY.) and Dick Durbin (D-IL.). According to both Gonzales’ Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson and prosecutor Carol Lam, Schumer pointed out, the Department of Justice had not communicated to Lam any concern about her prosecution of immigration cases (those being Gonzales’ main excuse for having fired her). Gonzales claimed that “Congress members” had talked to her about the matter; in his mealy-mouthed way, he tried to imply that DOJ had done so too. But Schumer would have none of it. So, we are to believe the unbelievable. As Josh Marshall has pointed out at Talking Points Memo, with the obvious political reasons for her firing staring us in the face (her prosecution of Republicans), we are to believe she was fired for something her employer never even discussed with her.
Schumer hit on one other obvious Gonzales contradiction. On December 15, 2006, he said, the Attorney General told Senator Mark Pryor that he would work to see that Karl Rove’s candidate, Timothy Griffin, faced a confirmation hearing in the Senate. Then, on December 19, Sampson emailed White House Counsel Harriet Miers, indicating that the DOJ wanted to get around that process, using delaying tactics that would pave the way for a recess appointment.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Schumer told Gonzales. Either you lied or your Chief of Staff operates on his own. Either way, Schumer insisted, “You should not be Attorney General.” Gonzales claimed that he was unaware of Sampson’s email, despite the fact that Sampson, under oath, had sworn otherwise.
Senator Durbin touched on similar territory, pointing out that Sampson recommended to White House Counsel Miers that Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald be removed in the middle of his investigation of the White House’s outing of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame. In typical fashion, Gonzales claimed he neither remembered this, nor had been consulted.
Durbin then criticized Gonzales and the AG promptly objected: “If you criticize the Department, you are criticizing career professionals.” Not a smart thing to say. Durbin cut him off at the knees with a comment the likes of which hadn’t previously been heard in the Senate: “That is like saying that, if you oppose the war, you’re opposing the troops.” The crowd in the back of the room broke out in applause.
The hearing was to continue in a similar vein after lunch. And other hearings and private interviews would continue, undoubtedly in a similar vein, in the weeks to come. The House Judiciary Committee is considering granting limited immunity to Gonzo’s former counsel Monica Goodling, whose lawyer said she would take the Fifth and has refused to appear — although it’s unclear what more we really need to hear.
On Tuesday, Gonzales refused to comply with a committee subpoena for documents related to the attorney firings. But do we need more documents to know that George W. Bush’s Attorney General breaks the law and violates the Constitution, including by refusing to comply with subpoenas?
Of course, he fits right in. Both judiciary committees have approved, but not yet dared issue subpoenas for Karl Rove, Miers, and other key White House players. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has already asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice four times to appear or be subpoenaed, but has not dared subpoena her. The fear is, no doubt, of delays and of a Supreme Court now made up, in part, by people like Alberto Gonzales.
How to hold the executive branch to account? The current dilemma seems like a real mystery, something our Constitution just does not provide a solution for. Even if we could get rid of Gonzales, who would replace him? Who, appointed by George Bush and Dick Cheney, would obey and enforce the law? The answer is simple enough: Nobody.
Fortunately, our Constitution does provide a solution. It’s called impeachment, and on Saturday, April 28, there will be an event near you demanding it.
David Swanson is the Washington Director of Democrats.com and co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, and of the Backbone Campaign. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, a communications director, and Press Secretary for Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign. His website is Swanson.org. In April 2007, Swanson began consulting part-time for Kucinich for President 2008. (He thanks Steve Bhaerman for the headline.)
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]