Tuesday, March 20, 2007

2,000 Pages Of Justice Dept. Docs, Emails Released: "You Have No Idea How Bad It Is Here"

US News
Paralysis Sets In as DOJ Faces Crisis
More from chief legal affairs correspondent Chitra Ragavan:

The Justice Department is expected to release more than 400 pages of E-mails and documents by close of business today to comply with a demand from Democrats in Congress over the growing crisis regarding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year. The crisis has engulfed the department and threatens to cut short Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's tenure.

Update: The Justice Department now says the document dump will contain closer to 2000 documents.

"You have no idea," said one Justice official, "how bad it is here."

The fear that virtually any piece of communication will have to be turned over has paralyzed department officials' ability to communicate effectively and respond in unison to the crisis, as has the fact that senior Justice officials themselves say they still don't know the entire story about what happened that led to the crisis. So they are afraid that anything they put down on paper could be viewed as lies or obfuscation, when in fact, the story is changing daily as new documents are found and as the Office of Legal Counsel conducts its own internal probe into the matter.

The paralysis will affect the calculations that Gonzales must make this week as to whether he should stay or go. If Gonzales doesn't resign, there's little doubt that he will get few of his initiatives through for the rest of his tenure and that his people will spend months churning out documents at the behest of angry Democrats who will be investigating virtually anything that moves. But this could also give Gonzales an exit strategy, officials say. He could say that while neither he nor his subordinates did anything wrong, he has decided to resign for the greater good of the department and for justice at large.

The Bush administration is making its own calibrated calculations. A stubbornly loyal individual, the president has had trouble cutting his ties to his embattled cabinet secretaries. However, if he chooses to keep Gonzales on, he is at risk of seriously eroding political capital at a time when his administration is being criticized even by party loyalists.

But if he decides to let him go, then who can fill Gonzales's place? For one thing, who would want the job? And who could Bush find that could get Senate confirmation, since Democrats now run the show? It would have to be a seasoned insider, a consummate veteran or an elder statesman who has bipartisan respect and acceptance and a squeaky-clean record.

"The trouble," says one former official, "is that no one comes to mind."