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E-Mails Show Justice Dept. in Damage-Control Mode

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E-Mails Show Justice Dept. in Damage-Control Mode

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E-Mails Show Justice Dept. in Damage-Control Mode

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Three thousand pages of Justice Department documents landed with a thud on Capitol Hill last night. That's not a cliche. These 3,000 pages were delivered in paper form. A team of NPR reporters and editors has spent the night digging through that material to see what insight, if any, it provides into the scandal surrounding eight fired U.S. attorneys.

Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro with their findings.

ARI SHAPIRO: It was after 9:00 last night when the Justice Department sent out a statement heralding this document drop. They called the department's decision to release more than 3,000 pages of deliberative material virtually unprecedented.

Spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the department decided to turn over the documents in order to show Congress and the American people, quote, "the department did not remove U.S. attorneys for improper reasons." Whether the Justice Department succeeds at making that case could determine whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales holds on to his job amid calls for his resignation.

So that's what the spokespeople had to say. Here's a sampling of what the documents have to say. They show eight U.S. attorneys trying to make sense of their dismissals as the Justice Department hunkers down to weather the fallout, sometimes mocking the people who were fired.

Thursday, February 1, 2007, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, Margaret Chiara, writes to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. She Says: now that it has been widely reported that departing U.S. attorneys have either failed to meet performance expectations or that they acted independently rather than follow Justice Department directives, this situation is so much worse. You know that I'm in neither category. This makes me so sad. Why have I been asked to resign? The real reason, especially if true, would be a lot easier to live with. Margaret.

At the end of February, Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos e-mails a group of her colleagues to ask how to handle the announcement of Chiara's departure. I believe this will generate another round of rough stories as expected, says Scolinos. Her press release paints a pretty darn good record and emphasizes her many firsts as a woman, which the media will no doubt play up.

A month later, Chiara again writes the deputy attorney general with a plea.

Paul, I respectfully request that you reconsider the rationale of poor performance as the basis for my dismissal. She goes on, politics may not be a pleasant reason, but the truth is compelling. She says the notoriety of being one of the eight fired U.S. attorneys, coupled with my age being constantly cited in the press, is proving to be a formidable obstacle in seeking employment.

In the case of a different U.S. attorney, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, a chain of e-mails shows miscommunication and anger among the Justice Department's leaders over the rationale for the man's dismissal. After the deputy attorney general told Congress that Cummins was asked to step down so a political ally could take his place, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse wrote, the attorney general is extremely upset with the stories on the U.S. attorneys this morning. The message went on, he also thought some of the deputy attorney general's statements were inaccurate.

In a statement last night, Roehrkasse said the attorney general was upset because he believed Cummins had been fired over performance issues. Cummins wrote a letter to the Justice Department saying I have no hard feelings. He discusses writing a letter in support of his replacement, Tim Griffin. But, Cummin says, as predicted, my wife is strongly opposed to me writing on Tim's behalf, so I still have some work to do there. He tells the Justice Department that he's been asked to testify before Congress and says I'm completely neutral to testifying.

Kyle Sampson, who resigned last week as the attorney general's chief of staff, wrote that he thought it would be a bad idea for Cummins to testify, quote, "how would he answer, did you resign voluntarily? Were you told why you're being asked to resign? Did Griffin, Cummins' replacement, ever talk about being attorney general appointed and avoiding Senate confirmation?"

In early February, Sampson wrote to the Justice Department's spokespeople with some good news for them, that the top lawyer to Senator Charles Schumer said the U.S. attorneys issue, quote, "had basically run its course. They need to get a little more information from us but that will be it."

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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