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Why US attorneys were fired: the evidence so far

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2007


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."

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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.