Congress Eyes Hearings on U.S. Attorney Firings

Democrats in Congress seek testimony from top White House officials — including presidential adviser Karl Rove — in an effort to determine whether the firings of eight U.S. attorneys were undertaken for overtly political reasons.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

If a leading Democrat has his way, some advisers to President Bush will have to explain the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): On Thursday this week, among the subpoenas that will be voted on will be one for Karl Rove and one for Harriet Miers and another one for her deputy.

INSKEEP: That's Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy. He told ABC over the weekend he will asks his fellow senators for authority to compel testimony if necessary. That is one of several developments in this story. Another comes today as the Justice Department sends Congress another stack of documents relating to this issue.

NPR justice reporter Ari Shapiro joins us. Ari, good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Always the best job title in the business. Now these documents, what's Congress is looking for?

SHAPIRO: They're looking for three things, really. The first is going to be did the U.S. attorney and his subordinates know when they testified on Capitol Hill about the firings of these U.S. attorneys that they were giving false testimony. You may remember there was a big batch of documents that came through last week that contradicted the attorney general's testimony, and he basically said I didn't know that that correspondence was going back and forth, so I was not aware that I was saying things that were not true before Congress. So Congress is going to be looking at these new documents and saying…

INSKEEP: He was before Congress saying we didn't fire these people for political reasons, and it turns out that maybe they did.

SHAPIRO: Well, he said the White House wasn't involved in the firings. He said I would never fire people for political reasons, which is something he still stands behind but the e-mails really suggest otherwise, suggest that there may have been political motivations behind these firings. And that's one of the other things that Congress is going to be looking for is were they fired for performance-related reasons, or were they fired because they weren't following the Justice Department's law enforcement priorities, or were they fired for partisan political reasons? What were the real motivations behind these firings?

And the third thing that Congress is going to be looking for in these documents is, when the White House asked Congress to add a provision to the Patriot Act renewal that gave the attorney general more authority to appoint replacement U.S. attorneys without going through Congress without getting Senate confirmation, did they have these specific firings in mind?

INSKEEP: And what are we going to find out this week about the status of this controversy and the Patriot Act, as well?

SHAPIRO: There has been a growing movement to roll back the change to the Patriot Act, to restore the confirmation authority for new U.S. attorneys to Congress, and that vote is going to be tomorrow. So it will be interesting to look at what the Senate does on this, whether there's push back to changing it, how the debate goes. And that all sort of give us a sense of what the tenor on Capitol Hill is, what the feeling is, especially among Republicans who have not in full voice as a group called for the attorney general to resign. But certainly a couple of them are calling for the attorney general to resign. Those who are supporting the attorney general are doing so in what could be described as sort of a tepid way. So it will be interesting to look at this debate and see where things stand with this one part of the debate, rolling back the Patriot Act change.

INSKEEP: What's Attorney General Gonzales have been doing during all this time?

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, when he held this press conference last week one of the things he said is I'm not here because I give up. And it looks like he has been trying to do some repairs to his reputations and to the hits that he took last week.

On Friday, he held a conference call with U.S. attorneys to talk with them about the scandal and apologize for the way things were handled. He brought in a new chief of staff to appoint the guy who resigned, Kyle Sampson. That new chief of staff is Chuck Rosenberg, who's a well-respected former U.S. attorney himself.

He has been keeping a low profile. The attorney general has not had what you would call a packed public schedule. But it's possible that he might meet with some members of Congress this week on Capitol Hill. And if he does, it'll be interesting to see how they respond to that, how the members of Congress come out of those meetings. If they take place, seeing whether they have more or less confidence in the attorney general after that.

INSKEEP: Ari Sharipo, again, one other question, a very basic question, but one that some people seem to still be asking. The administration gets to appoint these U.S. attorneys, each new president appoints a whole raft of them. And as the White House points out, they serve at the pleasure of the president, that's what the law says, anyway. So, why is it such a big deal for them to be fired, for eight of them to be fired at once?

SHAPIRO: Everyone agrees the president can fire anyone for any reason. But it's very unusual to fire a group of prosecutors like this in the middle of a term, and it would be even more unusual for it to happen for overtly politically partisan reasons. Now, again, that's something the Justice Department says has not happened, but the e-mails and some of the testimony from these fired U.S. attorneys suggest otherwise.

Now that combined with the change to the U.S.A. Patriot Act that gave the attorney general more authority to appoint these U.S. attorneys without going through Congress has made this enormous scandal it is today.

INSKEEP: Ari, thanks.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR justice reporter Ari Shapiro.

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