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

A key aspect of the U.S. attorney purge that often seems to get overlooked--by those who argue that the firings were business as usual and no different from the removal of USAs at the beginning of a president's term--is the change to the Patriot Act that was quietly inserted by Sen. Arlen Specter at the behest of the Justice Department.

As close followers of the scandal know, the Patriot Act provision, in essence, transferred the power to appoint interim USAs from the federal district courts to the attorney general and allowed the attorney general to install interim USAs indefinitely, thereby bypassing the Senate confirmation process.

Only the naive or willfully blind would see the Patriot Act amendment as a distinct and separate action from the purge itself. Indeed, vesting such powers in the attorney general was a predicate to the purge, and was one of the very first indications, at least to everyone here at TPM, that the removal of the eight U.S. attorneys was not some random act or unrelated series of acts but a deliberately conceived and executed plan that required time to develop and numerous participants to implement. Otherwise, the Senate confirmation process would have made installing political hacks as USAs difficult and would have provided supporters of the ousted prosecutors with a ready-made platform to challenge the removals publicly.

So when William Moschella, who is now the principal deputy attorney general, recently told McClatchy "that he pursued the changes on his own, without the knowledge or coordination of his superiors at the Justice Department or anyone at the White House," the purpose of his comments was to decouple the Patriot Act provision from the purge itself. Since Moschella was, at the time he pursued the Patriot Act changes, just a mid-level assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, we were supposed to believe that simply because B (the purge) followed A (the Patriot Act change), doesn't mean A caused B or was in any way related to B.

But wait.

From the document dump last night, we learn, again from McClatchy, that Moschella sent an email to other Justice Department officials way back in November 2005 announcing support for the change to the law. Paul has more.

So contrary to earlier assertions, the attorney general was involved in the firings, and higher-ups in the Justice Department knew about the Patriot Act provision.

No surprise there, really. But keep this in mind. Everything the Justice Department has said that later turned out to be false was almost certainly known by the White House to be false, at the time the false statements were made, to the media, and most importantly, to Congress.

Let that sink in.

So many Justice Department scandals, so little time. But in case you missed this yesterday, an account in the Washington Post from an anonymous recipient of a national security letter.

Thou dost protest too loudly.

In McClatchy's piece late yesterday on the whole "voter fraud" mumbo-jumbo that has been animating the Bush Justice Department, this section caught my eye:

Bradley Schlozman, who became the civil rights division’s deputy chief in 2003, agreed in 2005 to reverse the career staff’s recommendations to challenge a Georgia law that would have required voters to pay $20 for photo IDs and in some cases travel as far as 30 miles to obtain the ID card.

A federal judge threw out the Georgia law, calling it an unconstitutional, Jim Crow-era poll tax.

In an interview, Schlozman, who was named interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City in November 2005, said he merely affirmed a subordinate’s decision to overturn the career staff’s recommendations.

He called it "absolutely not true" that he drove out career lawyers. "What I tried to do was to depoliticize the hiring process," Schlozman said. "We hired people across the political spectrum."

I'm no expert on DOJ hiring policies, but how exactly did Schlozman know he was hiring people from across the political spectrum?

If he had said, "We hired people without regard to political affiliation," that would have been close to an airtight denial of political interference in the hiring process. It might not have been true (and the evidence suggests it would not have been true), but it would have been a specific denial of the conduct alleged.

Instead, Schlozman says he made a concerted effort to "depoliticize the hiring process" by hiring "people from across the political spectrum." That certainly seems to suggest that political affiliation was indeed taken into account.

Keep in mind here that we're talking about the hiring of career prosecutors, not political appointees. We're also talking about the Civil Rights Division, which conservatives have long viewed as a hotbed of liberal activism. So any alleged politicization that existed in the division before Bush arrived on the scene is code for too many perceived Democrats (again, DOJ would have no way of directly knowing the political affiliations of its career prosecutors) enforcing the nation's civil rights laws too vigorously.

When a Bush political appointee says he's trying to "depoliticize" something, it's like Fox News claiming to be "fair and balanced."

One thing you can say about Washington is that political courage rises in inverse proportion to the political strength of one's opponent. As Alberto Gonzales (a.k.a., the "walking cadaver") hemorrhages politically, everyone on the Hill is suddenly as fearless as a shark. Republicans say they never liked him, and Democrats (I presume this came from Democrats) give accounts such as this one, from Newsweek:

Recently, a trio of senators—Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy; Arlen Specter, the senior Republican on the committee, and Democrat Charles Schumer—sat down with Gonzales in his wood-paneled conference room to discuss the firings of the U.S. attorneys. Gonzales was initially combative and defensive. "Why do I have to prove anything to you?" he demanded at one point, according to a source who was in the room but does not wish to be identified revealing a private conversation. He insisted that only poor performers had been fired. "Everyone was in the bottom tier," he said. "Everyone?" asked Schumer. What about David Iglesias of New Mexico? (The department's internal evaluations had given Iglesias glowing marks.) Gonzales hesitated. "I believe so," he said, but he seemed uncertain. As the meeting was breaking up, Gonzales suddenly switched tacks and seemed to want to be cooperative. "How can we make this better?" he asked. "What can we do?" According to this source, the attorney general seemed to some in the room to be genuinely befuddled.

Gonzales is getting what he deserves, to be sure, but among his opponents there were far fewer profiles in courage before he was mortally wounded.

Looks like the Senate Judiciary Committee has a deal worked out for Kyle Sampson to testify voluntarily, which could be interesting in light of Sampson's claims Friday that others in the Justice Department were aware of the White House's role in the U.S. Attorney purge even before top DOJ officials testified to the contrary before Congress.

Joe DiGenova--former federal prosecutor, GOP talking head, and husband of Victoria Toensing--has become a veritable quote machine on the U.S. attorney scandal. But here's his best yet, on Justice Department political appointees: "There are too many Stepford husbands in this administration: young men who are perfectly coiffed and have great clothes, but very few of them have ever been in a courtroom."

Is the attorney general apologizing for saying the purged U.S. attorneys were canned for "performance-related reasons"?

As I mentioned earlier, that's what McClatchy reported yesterday, and the AP has a similar report today on what transpired during a conference call between Gonzales and all the U.S. attorneys on Friday:

During the conference call, planned as a pep talk to raise morale at a Justice Department tainted by the firings and the FBI's misuse of the Patriot Act, Gonzales apologized for how the dismissals were handled and for suggesting there were problems with the prosecutors' job performances.

Without more information, it's hard to know what that means. Is he abandoning the Administration's defense that the prosecutors were removed for legitimate job performance reasons? Or is he saying that the Justice Department did act based on performance concerns but shouldn't have shredded the prosecutors' reputations in the process of defending the move? Since this was a "pep talk," I suspect it's the latter.

The most interesting testimony in yesterday's House committee hearing on the CIA leak case came not from Valerie Plame Wilson but from James Knodell, director of the White House security office, who testified that the White House had neither undertaken an internal investigation into the leak nor taken disciplinary action against the leakers. Here's a copy of the letter committee Chairman Henry Waxman sent to White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten following the hearing.

Think Progress has a good catch, from NPR:

According to Justice Department sources, after Kyle Sampson resigned as the attorney general’s chief of staff on Monday, he was going to work as a lawyer in the legislative section of the department’s environment division. The Justice Department started to set up a new office for Sampson in that section, and he only resigned from the department on Tuesday, when the scandal surrounding eight fired U.S. Attorneys continued to grow.

Yup. Mistakes were made.