MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
How and why were eight U.S. attorneys fired? That story continues to snowball in Washington. A top Justice Department adviser has resigned over his involvement in the dismissals. And today congressional leaders said they haven't finished digging into the matter.
NPR's Ari Shapiro has the latest.
ARI SHAPIRO: Monday, January 9, 2006. I recommend that the Department of Justice and the office of the council to the president work together to seek the replacement of a limited number of U.S. attorneys. That was a message from the attorney general's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, to Harriet Miers, who was then White House counsel. Sampson's resignation yesterday was the latest casualty in the scandal.
Today, the Justice Department sent Congress a stack of e-mails between Sampson and other administration officials, including Miers. They show an earlier and deeper White House involvement in the U.S. attorney firings than anyone in the administration had previously admitted. Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer said this morning this has become as serious as it gets.
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): The latest revelations prove beyond any reasonable doubt that there has been unprecedented breach of trust, abuse of power and misuse of the Justice Department. And that is very serious and very important.
SHAPIRO: The e-mails show that in early 2005, Miers at the White House proposed firing all 93 U.S. attorneys. Sampson arranged to get rid of a smaller group instead. One was fired last summer, another seven on a single day in December. Although the administration maintains that the firings were all performance related, some of the former prosecutors have testified before Congress that they believe they were forced out for political reasons. As members of Congress called for the attorney general to resign, Alberto Gonzales canceled his travel plans to do damage control.
Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Attorney General): I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility. And my pledge to the American people is to find out what went wrong here, to assess accountability and to make improvements so that the mistakes that occurred in this instance do not occur again in the future.
SHAPIRO: When the scandal first broke, Democrats accused the Justice Department of trying to use a new provision in the Patriot Act to appoint new U.S. attorneys without getting congressional approval. Today, Attorney General Gonzales insisted they never planned to go around Congress. But the e-mails suggest otherwise.
In December of last year, Sampson at the Justice Department wrote of the new authority, if we don't ever exercise it, then what's the point of having it? Washington University law professor Sam Buell worked in U.S. attorneys' offices for 10 years and he prosecuted the Enron case. He says the administration has the right to fire U.S. attorneys at any time for any reason, but this scandal risks doing long-term damage to prosecutors' reputation for independence.
Professor SAM BUELL (Law, Washington University): They need to be able to say to judges, to juries, to the public, we follow the evidence where it leads us, we apply the law, our decisions are not political. And that makes them more effective. So while the administration might gain something politically from doing this, it loses something in terms of its ability to accomplish the Department of Justice's mission.
SHAPIRO: The Justice Department may have thought it would gain something politically from the U.S. attorney firings. But instead this has become a big black eye for the administration. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees both want top White House and Justice Department officials to testify, including Harriet Miers and presidential adviser Karl Rove. And many people are asking whether the president was involved.
White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters that President Bush passed along general complaints about U.S. attorneys' failure to pursue cases of voter fraud, but he never complained about specific prosecutors. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy today accused the administration of acting as though it still has a rubberstamp Congress. Leahy said they are discovering that those days are gone.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.