Saturday, March 17, 2007

`Dear Friend' Gonzales Is Expendable to Bush
`Dear Friend' Gonzales Is Expendable to Bush
By Margaret Carlson

March 16 (Bloomberg) -- Could President George W. Bush get away with fingering the wrong guy again?

He's sure trying to in the scandal surrounding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. On Wednesday, in his first comments, Bush criticized Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, expressing annoyance that questions about the scandal were intruding on his Latin America trip. Bush was feeling so much heat he couldn't even wait to clear Mexican airspace before separating himself from the first Mexican-American attorney general in history.

If the firings weren't looking like a White House operation, Bush wouldn't have criticized the man who must be among the most pliant attorney generals in history.

His ``dear friend'' Gonzales has been a cog in the Bush wheel since his earliest days in Texas. As Bush's counsel, he rejected death-row appeals at a pace that won Bush first place in speed and number (119) of executions in the country.

Gonzales, who once described the Geneva Conventions as ``quaint,'' has rubber-stamped every incursion into due process for detainees and enemy combatants. He approved the ``torture memo'' out of the Justice Department that changed techniques permitted in the interrogation of enemies captured in the war against terrorists. He hasn't met a civil right he likes.

But forcing Gonzales's resignation isn't enough, just as it's not enough to have Scooter Libby alone take the rap for the CIA leak investigation.

On Board

As the facts trickle out, prompted by the release of documents, the president has now acknowledged he ``passed on complaints'' to Gonzales last October about prosecutors, although he said he gave no specific instructions.

Thanks to e-mails, it's clear others in the White House were on board: Presidential adviser Karl Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers, a Texas attorney so pliant even Republicans couldn't stomach her nomination to the Supreme Court, and Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's chief of staff, hard-wired to the White House he used to work in.

They were out to punish U.S. attorneys for not moving fast enough to prosecute Democrats, moving too fast to prosecute Republicans, or for ignoring ``administration initiatives.''

And one had to go for no reason other than to make room for a Rove protege.

Open Season

It looks like it's open season on chiefs-of-staff as Sampson follows Libby down the resignation path. Not that Sampson shouldn't go. He stood by while Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty testified before Congress that the firings were ``performance-related,'' when it fact they were politics- related.

``When I hear you talk about the politicizing of the Department of Justice, it's like a knife in my heart,'' McNulty told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.

Gonzales himself told the Senate back in January he would never make a change in prosecutors for political reasons. ``I just would not do it,'' he said, even as his chief of staff was in cahoots with the White House to do just that.

Sampson showed how to use a new provision slipped into the USA Patriot Act to bypass Senate confirmation of new U.S. attorneys. That would clear the way to get a Rove operative, Tim Griffin, appointed U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Arkansas, after removing the occupant of the office.

A Justice Department official wrote to Senator Charles Schumer that the department was ``not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin.'' But an e-mail to Justice revealed that getting Griffin appointed ``is important'' to Rove.

Contemptuous White House

One of the Sampson e-mails shows just how contemptuous the White House is of anyone outside it.

On the Griffin appointment, he recommended talking it into oblivion. ``Ask the senators to give Tim a chance,'' he said, while telling them ``we'll look for other candidates, ask them for recommendations, evaluate the recommendations, interview their candidates, and otherwise run out the clock. All of this should be done in `good faith,' of course.''

As Sampson became the fall guy of the moment, Gonzales went from calling the firings an ``overblown personnel matter'' that didn't ``go smoothly'' to holding a press conference conducted almost entirely in the passive voice. He said ``mistakes were made,'' as if that's an honorable admission and not a pathetic and laughable remnant from Watergate.

By resisting calls for Rove to testify before the Judiciary Committee, Bush is putting his political aide's welfare first just as he did in U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of Libby.

Micromanager Cheney

In that case, sworn testimony from Vice President Dick Cheney's press secretary and notes in Cheney's own handwriting show the vice president micromanaged the effort to rebut former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's claim that Iraq didn't buy yellow cake uranium from Niger.

Cheney was so angered that Rove was going unscathed despite having leaked himself that he put his feelings in writing, ``Not going to protect one staffer (Rove) & sacrifice the guy (Libby) who was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder.''

Substitute Gonzales for Libby and you've got the current state of play. Bush expressed confidence in Gonzales but left himself plenty of wiggle room to let him be the scapegoat for the whole mess.

Blaming the Messenger

The president defended his own actions and then blamed the messenger -- ``what was mishandled was the explanation to Congress'' -- and challenged Gonzales to fix it. ``Al was right,'' Bush said, ``mistakes were made.'' He instructed Gonzales to ``go up to Capitol Hill to correct them.''

And if he doesn't, even dear friends are expendable, if the dear friend isn't Rove. Bush's loyalty to Rove over all others looks ever more curious as the boy genius's political operation crumbles.

This all looks like an unforced error. You can remove prosecutors, you just can't single a few out, then lie that they're being let go because of poor performance, and try to slip their replacements by the Senate. It makes you wonder how much ``loyalty'' the 85 who kept their jobs exhibited.

Gonzales, if he takes the fall, can take comfort from the fact that unlike Libby, he won't need a pardon. Misleading Congress is rarely prosecuted and will be a footnote in the history books compared to enabling the White House to do whatever it wanted in the war on terrorism.

And, like other failures who have gone quietly, like George Tenet and L. Paul Bremer, he may have a Medal of Freedom in his future.

(Margaret Carlson, author of ``Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House'' and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)