Ex-U.S. Official: Fired Prosecutors Were 'Smeared'

James Comey

Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Comey testifies during a subcommittee hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, May 3, 2007. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

In Depth

Read up on the dismissed prosecutors and hear some of them discuss their cases.

Find out about some of the Bush administration officials involved in the firings.

The former second-in-command at the Justice Department told a House panel Thursday that the eight U.S. attorneys fired last year were, in his opinion, some of the best prosecutors in the country.

James Comey, who served as deputy attorney general from 2003 to '05, also told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law that he worried that the prosecutors' dismissals have damaged the Justice Department beyond repair.

"This is a hard time for folks at the department," Comey said. "And I think it's a time of a lot of uncertainty and pain for people who love the Department of Justice."

Comey has always had a reputation as a straight shooter. He's never been accused of being driven by politics.

On Thursday, the panel released an e-mail that Comey wrote to one of the fired U.S. attorneys, Bud Cummins of Arkansas. Part of the message reads:

"I will not sit by and watch good people smeared. What's that quotation about all that's necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to remain silent? Thanks again for your leadership. Jim."

Comey never raised his voice during the hearing. Yet listening to his testimony was like watching him calmly, quietly slide a knife between Attorney General Gonzales' ribs and twist.

Members of Congress asked about each of the U.S. attorneys who were fired. The Justice Department categorized all of the prosecutors as weak, ineffectual or disloyal. Comey's own take was quite different.

On John McKay of Washington state: "I wasn't supposed to have favorites, but John McKay was one of my favorites."

On Daniel Bogden of Nevada: "He is as straight as a Nevada highway and a fired-up guy."

On David Iglesias of New Mexico: "I thought he was a very effective U.S. attorney. He was sort of the Bogden of New Mexico — very straight, very able."

On Paul Charlton of Arizona: "Very smart, very honest and able person, and I respected him a great deal and would always listen to what he had to say."

Subcommittee Chairwoman Linda Sanchez (D-CA) asked Comey whether, in his view, there were "valid, performance-based reasons" to terminate the attorneys.

"Not in my experience with them," Comey replied.

The Justice Department also evaluated U.S. attorneys based on their loyalty to the Bush administration. One member of the House panel asked Comey what "loyalty" means in that context. Comey said he doesn't know.

"The U.S. attorneys are political appointees of the president," Comey said. "But once they take those jobs and run this institution, it's very important for the institution to be an 'other' in American life. Because my people had to stand up before juries of all stripes, talk to sheriffs of all stripes, judges of all stripes. They had to be seen as the good guys and not as either this administration or that administration. We just couldn't get our work done if we were seen that way."

Some of the U.S. attorneys say they were fired because they refused to follow partisan political directives.

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it's looking into whether Monica Goodling, the agency's former White House liaison, hired entry-level career prosecutors based on their political ideology — in violation of federal law. One member of Congress asked Comey what impact that allegation could have on the Justice Department. He replied that to him, that is the most serious part of the entire controversy.

"I don't know that there's any window you can go to, to get the department's reputation back, if that kind of stuff is going on," Comey said.

Comey said that in many ways he misses the Justice Department terribly, but given the current controversy, he's happy to be a private citizen.

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