Senate Eyes Limits on White House-DOJ Chatter

The Senate Judiciary Committee considers a bill that would limit communications between the Justice Department and the White House about pending investigations.

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The controversy over Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his testimony to Congress has raised a new concern.

Some senators are worried about improper political influence on law enforcement. And that's why a Senate committee, the Judiciary Committee, is considering a bill today that would limit communication between the White House and the Justice Department.

Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: How many people at the White House can talk to the Justice Department? That's not the start of a joke. It's the jumping off point for a line of questions that Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse put to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Whitehouse said...

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): This connection between the White House and the Department of Justice is the most dangerous one for a point of view of the potential for the infiltration of political influence into the department.

SHAPIRO: That accusation that politics has improperly influenced the Justice Department is at the center of a controversy that's shaking the department right now. So, how many people at the White House can talk to the Justice Department?

Well, under President Clinton, the answer was four. They could only call three people at Justice. But that policy changed during President Bush's first term. Attorney General John Ashcroft let hundreds of people at the White House get information from dozens of people at Justice about pending investigations.

And at a hearing last week, Senator Whitehouse pulled out a memo from Attorney General Gonzales that expanded communications even more. So people like the counsel to the vice president and the entire office of management and budget could talk with Justice officials about cases that were in the works. Whitehouse asked Gonzales...

Sen. WHITEHOUSE: What on earth business does the office of the vice president have in the internal workings of the Department of Justice with respect to criminal investigations, civil investigations and ongoing matters?

Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES (Justice Department): As a gentleman, I would say that's a good question.

Sen. WHITEHOUSE: Why is it here then?

Attorney General GONZALES: I'd have to go back and look at this.

SHAPIRO: Georgetown law Professor Viet Dinh worked at the Justice Department when Ashcroft threw open the doors to the White House. Dinh wasn't involved in the policy change, but at a panel last week, he speculated that the wider communications were necessary to deal with the massive criminal investigation into the 9/11 attacks.

Professor VIET DINH (Law, Georgetown University): I do think that expanding the number of people capable of briefing the White House removes the artificial backlog or bottleneck that would result if you only have three from one side of the equation and four on the other side of the equation who can facilitate these types of very critical conversations.

SHAPIRO: Jamie Gorelick was deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. She was on the same panel, and she said by letting so many people at the White House call the Justice Department, the administration basically eliminated an important firewall.

Ms. JAMIE GORELICK (Former United States Deputy Attorney General): I don't actually think it's a practical manner. You can protect the career person who is making a decision about a sensitive criminal case if you have the possibility of literally hundreds of people from the White House calling that person directly.

SHAPIRO: One of the problems here is a basic difference in mission. Roscoe Howard was D.C.'s U.S. attorney during President Bush's first term. He says the White House is supposed to be political.

Mr. ROSCOE HOWARD (Former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia): They do worry about who is elected in the next go-round of elections. And what you're trying to do at the Department of Justice is put those sort of considerations aside, look at things just based on the facts and make sure that justice is -as the statue says - blind.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department indicts politicians all the time. And defendants may claim that the indictments are politically motivated. Howard says Justice officials need to be able to credibly argue that politics has no influence on law enforcement decisions.

Mr. HOWARD: You want the public to understand that we're doing it, it's because the facts dictate that we do it, as opposed to an individual dictating you do it.

SHAPIRO: When Senator Whitehouse raised these concerns with Gonzales at last week's hearing, the attorney general replied...

Mr. GONZALES: I must say, sitting here, I'm troubled by this.

SHAPIRO: He promised to look into the matter. But some of the senators on the committee have said they don't trust Gonzales. They've lost confidence in him. So they are proposing legislation that would force the Justice Department to roll back its communications policy with the White House to return it to the Clinton administration policy, where only four people at the White House can talk with only three people at Justice.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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