WASHINGTON — The scribbled memo appears to be a draft of talking points for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. At the top of the page, underlined, is a single word: "Why."
The memo goes on to assert that eight US attorneys were fired for good reason. But it also cautions against releasing too much specific data about why each individual was pushed out.
"May offer some information to senators," says point No. 4, "but AG believes it's important to avoid getting into personnel decisions."
Events haven't followed that plan. In recent days, as the political furor in Washington has grown, the Justice Department has released thousands of e-mails and documents dealing with the dismissals. Yet at the heart of the case remains that single word, posed as a question. Why?
Why were those particular attorneys fired, anyway? Bush administration officials have said it was for performance-related reasons. Many congressional Democrats say they believe the real reason is politics.
An examination of the vast documentary record made available in recent days shows that Justice Department officials did discuss perceived performance shortcomings in those who were let go. But much of that discussion occurred after the firings developed into a political firestorm.
Most of the prosecutors who got the ax appear to have had no idea it was coming. E-mails depict shock – and some bitterness – among those fired.
Clearly, at Department of Justice headquarters in Washington there was a scale of dislike for those fired. Top department officials wanted some of the US attorneys out more than they did others. And it appears they didn't think that they needed to document their thinking or actions.
"We do not need cause, so there is not necessarily an objective record," reads the scribbled talking points memo, which was among the papers released March 19 by the Justice Department.
Ninety-three US attorneys are scattered around the US, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and other US territory. Each is the chief federal law-enforcement officer within his or her district. But all are political appointees, meaning they can be fired without cause by the president.
Documents show that dismissal of US attorneys became a subject of discussion between the White House and top Justice officials as early as the first months of 2005. Eight were then fired in 2006.
According to the handwritten talking points, the firings were for "various degrees of dissatisfaction." They were "not for cause, but good reason," said the memo.
Reasons weren't discussed with those who were fired because doing so would unavoidably lead to objections and comparisons, according to the memo.
In a second draft document, a Justice official compiled a matrix of reasons to justify the firings. The memo is typed but covered with hand-written edits.
Dan Bogden, US attorney in Las Vegas, was fired for "lack of energy and leadership for a highly visible district with serious crime issues," according to the memo.
The memo misspells Mr. Bogden's name as "Bodgen," however. And in an e-mail dated Dec. 6, 2006, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty acknowledges that he had not looked at the performance of Bogden's district. "I'm still a little skittish about Bogden," wrote Mr. McNulty.
Paul Charlton, US attorney in Phoenix, was let go in part due to "repeated instances of defiance, insubordination, actions taken contrary to instructions...," according to the matrix document. Mr. Charlton also failed to follow Justice Department instructions on the death penalty and required the FBI to videotape interviews, which was contrary to FBI policy.
However, according to an analysis by the Associated Press, Charlton's office ranked in the top one-third of US attorney offices in terms of number of prosecutions. And a Feb. 6, 2006 e-mail to Charlton from a former deputy attorney general said he was a "star."
Margaret Chiara, US attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich., appears to have been one of those at the "de minimus" end of the scale of those pushed out, according an e-mail between her and headquarters. In other words, Washington did not want her out as much as it did some others. She was allowed to postpone announcement of her resignation in an apparent attempt to avoid linking her to the others.
Yet her office was "fractured, morale has fallen, and [she] has lost the confidence of the leadership team," according to the overall matrix document.
David Iglesias, US attorney in Albuquerque, N.M., on the other hand, appears to be a particular target of the prosecutor purge. Democrats have insisted, and Mr. Iglesias himself has suggested, that he was fired for declining to investigate allegations of voter fraud in his district.
According to the matrix of reasons memo, Iglesias was an "absentee landlord." A handwritten addition says he was "underperforming generally."
Carol Lam, US attorney in San Diego, was another particular target. A May 31, 2006, e-mail from a top official in Washington wondered whether she had ever been "woodshedded" about a perceived lack of enforcement of immigration laws.
The matrix of Justice Department explanations adds that she "focused too much attention and time on personally trying cases," in the view of her superiors.
John McKay, US attorney in Seattle, was clearly thought by his superiors to be a loose cannon. One reason cited by top officials in his dismissal was "temperament issues."
Critics of the administration have cited Mr. McKay's endorsement of an information-sharing system for federal and state law enforcement – an effort the Justice Department has questioned.
Kevin Ryan, US attorney in San Francisco, was cited as running "the most fractured office in the nation." Morale there was so low it was "harming our prosecutorial efforts," according to Justice officials.
Finally, the matrix document separates out H.E. "Bud" Cummins, US attorney in Little Rock, Ark., via a separate box. Justice officials have acknowledged he was moved out to make room for a former associate of presidential adviser Karl Rove, but they insist that the associate, J. Timothy Griffin, is highly qualified for the job.