Monday, March 19, 2007

Leahy Wants Bush Aides to Testify on Fired Prosecutors

The New York Times
Leahy Wants Bush Aides to Testify on Fired Prosecutors

WASHINGTON, March 18 — The Democratic senator leading the inquiry into the dismissal of federal prosecutors insisted today that Karl Rove and other top aides to President Bush must testify publicly and under oath, setting up a confrontation between Congress and the White House, which has said it is unlikely to agree to such a demand.

Some Republicans have suggested that Mr. Rove, as well as Harriet E. Miers, the former White House counsel, and William Kelley, the deputy White House counsel, testify privately, if only to tamp down the political uproar.

But Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, seemed to rule out such a move today, saying that his committee would vote Thursday to issue subpoenas in the inquiry, which centers on whether the White House allowed politics to interfere with law enforcement.

“I do not believe in this, ‘we’ll have a private briefing for you where we’ll tell you everything,’ and they don’t,” Mr. Leahy said on the ABC News program “This Week.” adding: “I want testimony under oath. I am sick and tired of getting half-truths on this.”

Lawmakers of both parties agree that the fate of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales may rest on what happens this week, as the White House and Congress either come to blows — or finds a compromise — over the testimony lawmakers are demanding. With Mr. Bush out of town at Camp David, the White House counsel, Fred F. Fielding, spent the weekend in Washington weighing whether to allow Mr. Rove and the others to talk and, if so, under what conditions.

In response to Mr. Leahy’s comments today, Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said the Bush administration was standing by its earlier promise that Mr. Fielding would give Democrats an answer on Tuesday.

“Fred has been talking with folks on Capitol Hill, analyzing various statements and conversations with folks on the Hill, and we will get back to them,” Mr. Snow said in a brief telephone interview.

He would not say which way White House officials are leaning.

“This is a complex matter and deserves careful consideration,” Mr. Snow added.

Dan Bartlett, counselor to Mr. Bush, has said it is “highly unlikely” that the president would waive executive privilege to allow his top aides to testify publicly. One Republican strategist close to the White House, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to appear to be representing the administration, said: “No president is going to let their senior staff assistant to the president go testify. Forget that. They might agree to do an informal interview, but they’ll never testify.”

Democrats, citing a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, say presidential advisers, including 47 from the Clinton administration alone, have frequently testified before Congressional committees, both while serving the president and after they had left the White House.

Even so, legal experts say precedent does not play a role in decisions about whether to waive executive privilege; each administration, in effect, writes its own rules. The Bush administration has been particularly protective of executive privilege, and Republicans close to the White House say the decision about whether, or how much, to cooperate will come down to a calculation of the political risks and rewards.

Television news programs today were filled with talk of the prosecutors’ dismissals, and whether they would cost Mr. Gonzales his job. While Mr. Gonzales did not appear on any of the programs — he declined requests from at least two networks — two of the fired prosecutors spoke out, as did at least five senators, including Mr. Leahy and his Republican colleague on the Judiciary Committee, Senator John Cornyn of Texas.

None of the Republicans who took to the airwaves today offered a spirited defense of the Bush administration, but Mr. Cornyn and others did take exception to the Democratic vow to subpoena White House officials and accused some Democrats of trying to turn the issue to their political advantage.

“I’ll join Senator Leahy in getting to the facts and following the facts where they may lead,” Mr. Cornyn said. But he accused some Democrats of crossing this line “into basically a political witch hunt,” citing the role of Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, as head of the subcommittee running the investigation into the dismissals of the prosecutors.

He accused Mr. Schumer of “a conflict of interest.”

“They’re raising money on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Web site over this issue,” Mr. Cornyn said.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Mr. Leahy’s counterpart on the Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania sounded cautious when asked if he still had confidence in Mr. Gonzales. The Pennsylvania senator, a former Philadelphia district attorney, has clashed with the attorney general on a range of issues — including the administration’s domestic eavesdropping program — but said today that he was “reserving judgment” until the inquiry is complete.

Already, the uproar over the dismissals has led to the resignation of Mr. Gonzales’ chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, whose plan to remove seven of the nation’s 93 United States attorneys was detailed in e-mail messages made public last week. The e-mails showed that over the last two years, Mr. Sampson had consulted extensively with the White House about planning for the firings — information that contradicted earlier assertions by Justice Department officials that the White House was not involved.

Mr. Schumer said his aides had spoken Saturday night to Mr. Sampson’s lawyer, and had received indications that Mr. Sampson “wants to come forward.” Speaking on “Meet the Press” on NBC, Mr. Schumer said, “It’s a real possibility that he will voluntarily testify.”

The lawyer, Brad Berenson, said in an e-mail message today that he had no comment on his client’s plans.

Democrats want to know who hatched the plan to remove the prosecutors, and why. They are suspicious that the prosecutors were removed for either pursuing or failing to pursue politically charged cases, including ethics scandals and voter fraud investigations. One of the seven prosecutors, David Iglesias of New Mexico, told “Fox News Sunday” that he considered his dismissal “a political hit.”

Mr. Iglesias was removed after a Republican senator, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, complained to President Bush about lax prosecution of voter fraud cases in his home state. Mr. Bush has said he passed on the complaint, in general terms and without mentioning any prosecutors’ names, to Mr. Gonzales.

Another of the fired prosecutors is Carol Lam, whose work as the United States attorney in San Diego resulted in the conviction of Randy Cunningham, a former Republican congressman now serving eight years in prison. Today, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat and a member of the Judiciary Committee, cited Ms. Lam’s dismissal in echoing Mr. Leahy’s demand for public testimony from Mr. Rove.

“I think he should come up to the committee and speak under oath about it,” Ms. Feinstein said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”