At the heart of the dispute over the firing of eight US attorneys may be this question: Were the reasons for their dismissal properly political or improperly political?
Federal prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the president, after all. It's appropriate that they follow the general political priorities of the chief executive who appointed them, say legal experts.
The issue in this case is whether Bush administration officials went too far and engaged in unacceptable actions – such as pressuring the attorneys to use their powers for the specific electoral benefit of the GOP.
"US attorneys should be fair-minded and independent and not make judgments about prosecutions or indictments on truly political grounds," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
For instance, some Democrats have charged that Carol Lam, the former US attorney in San Diego, was fired due to her pursuit of a wide-ranging public-corruption case that snared a former Republican congressman, Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California.
John McKay, the former US attorney in Seattle, has himself said indications are he was fired because of his refusal to bring voter fraud cases after the 2004 Washington gubernatorial election, which the Democratic candidate won narrowly.
David Iglesias, former US attorney in Albuquerque, N.M., similarly has said he received phone calls from congressional Republicans rebuking him for not pursuing Democrats more aggressively in election-year investigations.
"The dismissed US attorneys have testified under oath and said in public that they believe political influence was applied. They have given chapter and verse and specific examples," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at a Thursday hearing. "If they are right, that mixing of partisan political goals into federal law enforcement is highly improper."
The former Justice Department official who was at the center of the effort to identify US attorneys for dismissal has publicly maintained that in his view none of them was fired for improper reasons.
Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, said at Thursday's Senate Judiciary hearing that in his view the distinction between "political" and "performance-related" reasons for removing a US attorney is largely artificial.
'Performance-related' is a plastic term that includes a lot of things to a lot of people," said Mr. Sampson.
As political appointees, the federal prosecutors should promote such initiatives as the president's Project Safe Neighborhoods to get guns off city streets, said Mr. Gonzales's former chief of staff.
Yet Ms. Lam in San Diego "simply did not devote any resources to that," said Sampson.
Lam also did not bring as many immigration cases as the administration wanted, Sampson added.
Yet critics have noted that there is no indication that the Justice Department ever confronted Lam with their complaints about her performance in regard to gun control or immigration.
After her dismissal, the chief of the FBI bureau in San Diego told a reporter that the firing would hamper key investigations, and that politics was surely involved.
In Albuquerque, Mr. Iglesias last fall received phone calls from Rep. Heather Wilson (R) and Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico inquiring as to whether he would soon bring indictments in a politically charged corruption case involving Democrats. Iglesias has written that he felt the calls constituted political pressure, coming as they did shortly before the fall elections.
Moreover, Senator Domenici called Justice Department officials, including Gonzales, to complain about Iglesias.
Thousands of pages of e-mails and documents released by the Justice Department in recent days make clear that the White House was consulted throughout the process of drawing up lists of US attorneys for dismissal.
A Feb. 22, 2007, e-mail from Sampson noted that the draft of a letter responding to Congress on the US attorney matter needed to be forwarded to the White House counsel's office, since political adviser Karl Rove was involved.
"The plot continues to thicken. It seems the Justice Department rarely acted without the knowledge and approval of the White House," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York on Thursday.
Also, Gonzales was wrong when he stated that he was not involved in discussions about the firings before they occurred, according to his former chief of staff and documentary evidence. "I remember discussing with him this process of asking certain US attorneys to resign," said Sampson during his Senate appearance.