Thursday, March 29, 2007

Sampson on the spot

This morning I got to watch a portion of the Congressional testimony of Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Alberto Gonzales. I recommend finding the time to view parts of it yourself, because you get a sense of the actors far better than anything you'll get from a news summary or even a quality blog such as this one.

YouTube has tons of video to choose from.

Sampson came across as sincere and convincing, for the most part, though he seemed like a guy who was given far more responsibility than he could handle. He said "I don't know" or "I don't recall" a lot, but that's normal and prudent. He was particularly convincing when he flatly denied that the firings were related to ongoing investigations or other purely political considerations.

His main meme was clear: the firings were legal, but perhaps poorly handled. And the response to Congressional questioning was totally botched, which was why he resigned.

Fair enough, but there were plenty of troubling details that senators of both parties kept bringing up. Orrin Hatch pitched softballs, but Jeff Sessions sharply criticized the whole affair.

Some of the more notable points raised:

1. While saying the firings were based on performance, he acknowledged that the process was not "scientific nor extensively documented." Which led several senators to ask just what criteria were used to select these particular attorneys for removal.

2. He said Lam was criticized for her lack of immigration prosecutions. Then Sen. Diane Feinstein read a February 2006 letter from the Justice Department praising Lam for her immigration work in (I think) 2005, with prosecutions up three or fourfold and alien smuggling down by half. That said, the letter was apparently describing improvements over 2004. So one interpretation could be that Lam was doing a horrible job in 2004 -- when the firing process was already underway -- and her improved performance in 2005 wasn't enough to save her.

3. Sampson later added that Lam was also let go for her failure to go after gun violations aggressively enough, which seemed like a bit of alternate justification after his initial justification was undermined.

4. He repeated several times, under prodding from senators, that Gonzales said various things that were untrue in previous statements to Congress. On March 12, Gonzales said he was "not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions." But Sampson said he discussed the matter four or five times with Gonzales and kept him informed. And of course there was the Nov. 27 meeting at which Gonzales approved the firing plan. Gonzales said Sampson didn't share information within the department; Sampson said he did.

5. Sampson said the firings were in the works for two years, as they first compiled an initial list and then waited for the attorneys' terms to expire. But then there was this bombshell:

Sampson also revealed that New Mexico U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias was not added to the dismissal list until just before the Nov. 7 elections, after presidential adviser Karl Rove complained that Iglesias had not been aggressive enough in pursuing cases of voter fraud.

Not only proof of direct and forceful Rove involvement, but a last-minute addition that undermines the "two year" and "for performance" claims -- since they apparently had no problems with his performance up until that point, and it would seem difficult to properly assess his performance given the hastiness of the addition.

6. Sampson even suggested firing Patrick Fitzgerald in the middle of his prosecution of Lewis Libby. One can only imagine what a firestorm that would have caused. Luckily for all of us cooler heads prevailed, in the form of Harriet Miers. But that's saying something, consider Miers was the one who initially proposed firing all 93 attorneys at the beginning of Bush's second term. When she's considered the cooler head, you've got some trouble going.

So what does it all mean?

Sampson made a strong case that the firings were legal and proper, and at least some of them probably were. Kevin Ryan, for instance, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, was a devoted Bush loyalist. His removal, everyone seems to agree, actually was performance-based.

But even that case highlights the political nature of the dismissals, because the administration wanted to keep him on because he was so loyal, despite myriad complaints about his performance.

And at least some of the firings, like Iglesias', seem to have no other explanation than politics.

Sampson made a spirited case defending even that practice, saying "the distinction between political and performance-related reasons for removing a U.S. attorney is, in my view, largely artificial." His general argument: if a U.S. attorney lacks political support or the confidence of the President, he cannot be effective.

Legally, he may be right. So far, Congress has not uncovered any criminal wrongdoing, and I don't think they're likely to. The attorneys do, after all, serve at the pleasure of the president. Firing them for sleazy reasons may be sleazy, but it's not illegal.

But ethically and politically, he's dead wrong. Ethically, the firings have undermined the independence, impartiality and morale of U.S. attorneys as a group -- something the attorneys themselves have been rather pointedly telling Gonzales. Politically it's just stupid, because the defense doesn't satisfy the understandable desire to believe our justice system is impartial. This seemed to be something that particularly incensed Sen. Sessions, who opened his statement by saying that he wanted to make clear the justice system worked and the U.S. attorneys were all fine, dedicated public servants, whatever doubts the current scandal may raise in that regard.

Then there's the little matter of lying to Congress. And on that score, I think Gonzales is doomed. His earlier statements have been almost entirely discredited, and his explanations ring hollow. His main defense is that he has since, uh, "clarified" his earlier statements, and his new version of events comports well with Sampson's. Why he considers that a defense, I don't know. Only the most sympathetic reading of his March 12 comments would lead one to say he was merely imprecise or misspoke. Even conservative bloggers have derided his tortured explication of what he meant by "involved", invoking the dreaded Clintonian "that depends what the meaning of 'is' is."

I've said all along that Gonzales should be fired for the totality of his resume, not the prosecutor firings. The true grounds are incompetence -- both in law and in management -- and a willingness to bless things like torture and "enemy combatant" statuses that are grossly violative of clearly written law and basic human decency.

Initially I was simply amused that a relatively minor flap such as this would be what finally brought him down. But Gonzales exceeded my expectations by choosing to lie. It is a fitting capper to the twilight of his tenure: He will be forced to resign because he managed to take a minor embarassment and turn it into a raging disaster.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am tired of hearing this phrase "serving at the pleasure of the president". It doesn't describe anything completely. While it is true taken as it is, at whose or which thing's pleasure does the president serve?
Obviously the answer is the constitution. But the conservatives dont seem to remember that the pres. is an elected official and not royalty and that no one should be given leeway for undermining the laws of this country by looking the other way.


3/30/2007 12:36 PM  

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