David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

I doubt we'll be hearing much more from New Mexico GOP Chairman Allen Weh anytime soon, after he fingered Karl Rove in the sequence of events that led to the dismissal of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. But Weh did have one more comment for New Mexico blogger Heath Haussamen, a bit of advice really: "The story is about an incompetent United States attorney, and that’s where I think your focus needs to be."

Because we all know how determined the Bush Administration is to weed incompetence from its ranks. Take, for example, the attorney general himself:

[S]everal Washington lawyers and GOP strategists with close ties to the White House said last week that lawmakers and conservative lawyers are nervous that Gonzales may not be up to the job.

"This attorney general doesn't have anybody's confidence," said one GOP adviser to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could be candid. "It's the worst of Bush -- it's intense loyalty for all the wrong reasons. There will be other things that come up, and we don't have a guy in whom we can trust."

Yet we are supposed to believe the claims that "performance-related problems" are behind the purge. Of all the possible cover stories for a political purge, could they have come up with a less plausible one?

I posted yesterday about the Pentagon's role in clandestine activities being used by the Bush Administration as a way to work around congressional oversight requirements. National Journal has a piece out suggesting impetus for changes to the Defense Department's intelligence apparatus may be in the works and comes from within the Pentagon itself:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is considering a plan to curtail the Pentagon's clandestine spying activities, which were expanded by his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, after the 9/11 attacks. The undercover work allowed military personnel to collect intelligence about terrorists and to recruit spies in foreign countries independently of the CIA and without much congressional oversight.

Former military and intelligence officials, including those involved in an ongoing and largely informal debate about the military's forays into espionage, said that Gates, a former CIA director, is likely to "roll back" several of Rumsfeld's controversial initiatives. This could include changing the mission of the Pentagon's Strategic Support Branch, an intelligence-gathering unit comprising Special Forces, military linguists, and interrogators that Rumsfeld set up to report directly to him. The unit's teams work in many of the same countries where CIA case officers are trying to recruit spies, and the military and civilian sides have clashed as a result. CIA officers serving abroad have been roiled by what they see as the Pentagon's encroachment on their dominance in the world of human intelligence-gathering.

Let's be clear here though. Reducing the Pentagon role in human intelligence gathering is not the same thing as closing the purported loophole that the Bush Administration is reportedly using to circumvent the congressional intelligence committees.

Late update: The New York Times has more on some of the intelligence-related changes (many of them merely cosmetic) being undertaken by Bob Gates.

Did somebody get to New Mexico GOP Chairman Allen Weh after the McClatchy scoop broke last night?

Here's what Weh told McClatchy:

In an interview Saturday with McClatchy Newspapers, Allen Weh, the party chairman, said he complained in 2005 about then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to a White House liaison who worked for Rove and asked that he be removed. Weh said he followed up with Rove personally in late 2006 during a visit to the White House.

"Is anything ever going to happen to that guy?" Weh said he asked Rove at a White House holiday event that month.

"He's gone," Rove said, according to Weh.

"I probably said something close to 'Hallelujah,'" said Weh.

Here's what Weh subsequently told the AP:

Weh told The Associated Press later Saturday that "Rove has little or nothing to do with this."

"This is a personnel action, firing an incompetent United States attorney who should have been fired" earlier, Weh told the AP. "He absolutely was a disgrace to the Department of Justice."

He said his conversation at the White House with Rove came "after the fact, after the termination had occurred."

"When I talked to Karl it was at a White House briefing for state party chairmen after a reception the day before," Weh told the AP. "The termination had already occurred."

Nothing to see here, folks, now move along.

But when you get right down to it, reading the two pieces side by side, Weh isn't saying much different. He's simply trying to spin the conclusion you should draw from what he's saying.

Did the AP ask Weh whether he had heard from the White House after the McClatchy piece broke, or did Weh figure it out on his own?

As Josh noted below, Rove's involvement with the U.S. Attorney purge is hardly a surprise. Here's what the Washington Post reported in early February:

One administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in discussing personnel issues, said the spate of firings was the result of "pressure from people who make personnel decisions outside of Justice who wanted to make some things happen in these places."

Hmmm. People outside of DOJ who make DOJ personnel decisions? That's a one-item list: the White House. Yet, as late as Friday, even the esteemed Dan Froomkin said, "Just how closely was the White House was involved in these firings remains a mystery."

The precise details are yet to be determined, but the White House involvement in this purge hasn't been a mystery for more than a month.

The New York Times has more on top New Mexico Republican officials urging action against then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias:

“I fall into the category of those who were ultimately very disappointed in David,” said Pat Rogers, a Republican lawyer in Albuquerque who has represented Mr. Iglesias, Ms. Wilson and the State Republican Party.

Mr. Rogers said he spoke with Mr. Iglesias at a private lunch last October in Albuquerque to discuss the perception that he was not pursuing indictments in the courthouse corruption inquiry expeditiously.

“I asked him, ‘Do you understand that everyone in this community is talking about why there hasn’t been any follow-up?’ and he said: ‘Boy, you’re right about that. Someone even told my wife about sealed indictments,’ ” Mr. Rogers said. “I came away from that meeting feeling stunned.”

Mr. Rogers said he thought Mr. Iglesias was shying away from the kinds of career-making cases prosecutors typically jump at, so he voiced doubts to Mr. Domenici.

Mickey D. Barnett, another top Republican lawyer in the state, who once served as an aide to Mr. Domenici in Congress and represented the Bush campaign in New Mexico in the 2000 and 2004 elections, said he had also complained.

“I would say to Pete and Heather: ‘Look, you guys have some influence; I don’t have any influence. Can we get something done?’ ” Mr. Barnett said.

Against the backdrop of complaints from top Republicans, Domenici and Wilson called Igelsias about the courthouse investigation just days before the mid-term elections only for informational purposes? Please. At least we know who they were talking about when Domenici and Wilson said they were getting constituent complaints about Igelsias.

A question, probably for our congressional staff readers:

In his recent New Yorker piece on the Bush Administration's "redirection" in the Middle East, Sy Hersh recalled the Iran-contra scandal as he reported on clandestine activities being conducted by the Department of Defense deliberately outside of the purview of the congressional intelligence committees:

Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal “lessons learned” discussion two years ago among veterans of the scandal. [Elliott] Abrams led the discussion. One conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: “One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office”—a reference to Cheney’s role, the former senior intelligence official said.

. . .

“This goes back to Iran-Contra,” a former National Security Council aide told me. “And much of what they’re doing is to keep the agency out of it.” He said that Congress was not being briefed on the full extent of the U.S.-Saudi operations. And, he said, “The C.I.A. is asking, ‘What’s going on?’ They’re concerned, because they think it’s amateur hour.”

The issue of oversight is beginning to get more attention from Congress. Last November, the Congressional Research Service issued a report for Congress on what it depicted as the Administration’s blurring of the line between C.I.A. activities and strictly military ones, which do not have the same reporting requirements.

So here's my question: if an administration can avoid the congressional oversight mechanism put in place after the CIA abuses of the 1970s by shifting the covert activity to the Pentagon, cutting out the CIA, and running the operations out of the Office of the Vice President, is serious legislation pending to close this loophole?

I don't mean to concede the argument that in fact the intelligence oversight mechanism cannot legally be circumvented so easily. But set that aside. If there's a purported loophole that top level Bush Administration officials believe is big enough to run a black-bag squad through, is Congress taking steps to close that loophole?

Late Update: Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, responds:

In response to David Kurtz's question, Congress appears to be at an early stage of grappling with apparent loopholes in its oversight of quasi-covert actions conducted outside of established CIA channels.

Among the questions posed by the November 2006 Congressional Research Service report cited by Hersh are such elementary ones as these (at page 11): "How should Congress define its oversight role? Which committees should be involved?" Thirty years after the establishment of the intelligence oversight committees, one might have expected such questions to be answered long ago. But no.

That CRS report is available from the Federation of American Scientists here.

When Republicans eat their own, from Legal Times:

It was an uncomfortable -- and perhaps unprecedented -- airing of private personnel matters. Granted, U.S. Attorneys are "at-will" employees who serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired without cause, yet even some of the administration's staunchest supporters were embarrassed at the breach of decorum.

"They have the right to fire them; they do not have the right to smear them," says Joseph DiGenova, a conservative commentator who was U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia during the Reagan administration. "Everybody involved in it at the Justice Department and White House should be taken to the woodshed. This is really a pathetic way of running government."

Other former U.S. Attorneys, all Republicans, said they were "stunned" or "flummoxed" or found the way the firings were handled "insulting."

"It is unfortunate that the department felt the need to attack the performance of these people," says Thomas Heffelfinger, who served as U.S. Attorney in Minnesota from 2001 until last year. "It wasn't necessary and it wasn't warranted."

Of course, the U.S. Attorney's job is inherently political; in the past, however, departures were handled with considerably more tact.

"It was handled discreetly, it was handled professionally, and people were given every opportunity to have a soft landing," says Mark Corallo, who was Justice Department spokesman under then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. "These are people who worked hard in the pursuit of justice. To go out and trash their reputations -- it's galling."

By the end of last week, some of the most conservative Republican senators were publicly assailing the department's handling of the matter. Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, a moderate, even suggested that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales might have to step down. And in an about-face, Gonzales said on March 8 that he would support a change in the law that would limit the attorney general's ability to appoint interim U.S. Attorneys.

"Regardless of the substance of the dismissals, it was so poorly handled that one has to question the leadership at the department," Corallo says. "Was anybody awake? Was anyone paying attention?"

Legal Times asked Republican superlawyer and former Solicitor General Ted Olson if this past week's hearings were like a circular firing squad: "That's a good way to put it," Olson said.

Update: I was bemused by the Republican infighting and the spectacle of GOP talking head Joe DiGenova suddenly becoming a champion of civility in politics. But be careful, some readers have warned me: this is faux GOP outrage designed to diminish the scandal. Writes TPM Reader GC:

Note that the Republican criticism of the Justice Department centers on the wrong issue. (They have no right to smear good people etc). All that may be true-but it's a minor/trivial issue compared with whether or not these new appointments were made because the agenda of the replaced US-As was not sufficiently political. i.e. The Republican crit/outrage is centered on an issue of personal dignity & not the administration malfeasance. In my view some of this Republican criticism may be designed to deflect attention from a far more significant issue.

That's true, as far as it goes. But there is both a substantive legal aspect and a political aspect to this scandal. Right now, as is usually the case when a scandal is breaking hot and heavy, each aspect feeds the other in what, for the targets of the scandal, is a vicious cycle. GOP senators began abandoning the White House on the purges on Thursday, and now big-wig Republicans are scampering away, too. With fewer defenders, the White House is in a weaker position to fend off congressional Democrats' efforts to get at the substance of what happened here. That is to say that the legal and political are inextricably linked.