Fired U.S. Attorneys' Probe Ends, Another Begins

The Justice Department's watchdog has published its final report on the firings of nine U.S. Attorneys. Those firings led to one of the most tumultuous chapters in the department's history. Eventually, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was forced to resign along with more than a dozen other top officials. Attorney General Michael Mukasey has appointed a prosecutor to pursue possible criminal charges against them.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host: Today, one sweeping investigation comes to an end, and another begins. The Justice Department's watchdog has just published its final report on the firings of nine U.S. attorneys. You may recall the question was whether they were fired for political reasons. Eventually, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was forced to resign along with more than a dozen other top officials.

Now, the Justice Department's inspector general is waiting on what happened. The report is more than 390 pages long, and NPR's Ari Shapiro has been reading. Ari, good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are you finding?

SHAPIRO: Well, the report basically blames everybody at the top of the Justice Department for completely mismanaging this process. For example, you have Kyle Samson who is chief of staff to Attorney General Gonzales. The Justice Department says, he mishandled the removal process from the outset.

Then you've got Gonzales himself, who according to the inspector general, was remarkably unengaged in the process, and did not provide adequate supervision. They say, he bore primary responsibility for this fiasco.

And then what you might call the money quote here is, Attorney General Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty abdicated their responsibility to safeguard the integrity and independence of the Justice Department by failing to ensure, they say, that the removal of U.S. attorneys was not based on improper, political considerations.

INSKEEP: Can I just review this and make sure I understand what you're saying here. The concern was that the White House essentially was unhappy with some U.S. attorneys, because they weren't pro -sufficiently going after Democrats in an election year.

SHAPIRO: Not - or because they were being too hard on Republicans, and it wasn't just the White House. There were also concerns about members of Congress and so, the most troubling case in all of these dismissals was David Iglesias of New Mexico.

INSKEEP: Mm-hm.

SHAPIRO: And the Inspector General says they found substantial evidence that partisan, political considerations played a part in the removal of David Iglesias and others. The problem is, people at the White House, member of Congress, such as Pete Domenici, the Republican from New Mexico, who played a role in the dismissal of Iglesias, these people wouldn't cooperate with the Inspector General's investigation, and so they say, they can't reach a final conclusion on whether there should be criminal prosecutions here.

INSKEEP: Which is going to lead to another point. But just so I'm clear, when you say Gonzales and others abdicated responsibility, what the investigator is saying is that Gonzales didn't fire these people for political reasons, he just stood aside and ignored it while other people did?

SHAPIRO: That's right. They basically say, this was an unprecedented chapter in the Justice Department's history, and the guy who was supposed to be in charge simply wasn't there.

INSKEEP: OK. And if you're saying that some people did not talk to the Justice Department Inspector General, what happens now?

SHAPIRO: Well, they've referred it to - they've recommended that the Attorney General now, Michael Mukasey, appoint a prosecutor to look into it, and that's exactly what he's done. He's named a woman, Nora Danahey, who is a prosecutor out of Connecticut.

She's going to continue with this investigation going forward. I mean, it's kind of amazing to look at the way this cooperation or lack thereof played out. You have an example in here of the White House putting together its own internal timeline of the U.S. attorney firings.

Sharing that timeline with one chapter of the Justice Department, and then when the Inspector General for the Justice Department came and asked for it, the White House instructed that Justice Department office not to hand it over. The Inspector General is frankly outraged by that in this report. And those are the kinds of things that this prosecutor is going to be looking into going forward.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, does the new prosecutor have the power to compel people to turn over things?

SHAPIRO: Yes, and the interesting thing is that now, this means, this controversy, this chaotic chapter is not going to end with the Bush administration. We're going to be hearing more and more about this as the next administration comes in, and hopefully, these questions finally get answered.

INSKEEP: All right, good talking with you once again.

SHAPIRO: You, too.

INSKEEP: NPR's justice correspondent, Ari Shapiro. The news again, Attorney General Michael Mukasey is appointed as special prosecutor to investigate charges, possible criminal charges, stemming from the firings of nine U.S. attorneys. A Justice Department inspector general is already weighed in and found serious problems.

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