Beyond Gonzales: Scrutiny in US attorneys case may shift to Bush staff

The White House could become the new target in the controversy surrounding the dismissal of federal prosecutors.

Now that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales doesn't look like he's going anywhere, the focus of the controversy over fired federal prosecutors may shift to the White House itself.

That's the probable course of events in the wake of the Senate's failure to pass a symbolic no-confidence vote against Mr. Gonzales on June 11, according to some lawmakers and legal experts.

Yet the Bush administration is likely to resist congressional subpoenas for testimony on the issue from political adviser Karl Rove and others. The bottom line: The issue of the US attorneys could be headed toward a difficult struggle over executive privilege.

The main issue now is whether current or former White House officials will talk to Congress and under what terms, says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

Democratic congressional leaders had hoped that the no-confidence vote might pressure Gonzales into resigning his post. Even Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, current ranking minority member and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, publicly predicted that Gonzales would probably step down rather than undergo such public censure.

Instead, the effort's failure may have emphasized the attorney general's tenacious grip on his sinecure. Democrats fell seven votes short of the 60 needed to end debate and move to a vote on the resolution. President Bush criticized the effort as political and said, "It's not going to make the determination about who serves in my government."

Democratic lawmakers vowed to press forward with their investigations, despite their Senate loss.

For instance, on June 19 Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who has announced his resignation, will testify before a House subcommittee about his role in the attorney firings. Gonzales has said he relied on Mr. McNulty more than other aides when deciding who to dismiss. But McNulty's previous testimony, in addition to internal Justice Department documents, indicate this may not be the case.

Congress is also likely to look at other Justice issues.

The department's own inspector general is looking at whether officials wrongly considered the party affiliation of candidates for career jobs there, Democrats point out. Many lawmakers wish to look further at the possible role of Gonzales – while he was White House counsel – in pressuring an ill Attorney General John Ashcroft to reauthorize the administration's warrantless wiretapping efforts.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and ranking minority member Sen. Specter for months have tried to get the administration to release its legal justification for the warrantless wiretapping program.

The Bush administration has yet to respond.

"This Justice Department's refusal to provide the material requested by the committee is unacceptable and shows, yet again, its disdain for any kind of constitutional oversight of its activities," said Sen. Leahy in a statement released June 8.

Members of Congress also want to talk to White House officials such as former counsel Harriet Miers and current political advisor Karl Rove about their knowledge of the process that ended with the firing of US attorneys.

Democrats want to know if there were political reasons for why the White House wanted the attorneys out. While US attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president, the Justice Department's own doctrine holds that they should be independent in regard to prosecutorial decisions.

Yet generations of US chief executives have invoked the concept of executive privilege to resist subpoenas and other legal requests from Congress. Litigation over the issue could stall inquiry for months – possibly even until the end of the Bush administration.

Last week, the administration announced the hiring of nine new lawyers for the White House counsel's office, points out Prof. Tobias at the University of Richmond.

"I think they are gearing up for a fight. We'll see where this goes," he says.

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