The White House Truth Gap
The Bush administration never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.
When asked Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation" about the firing of eight federal prosecutors, Vice President Dick Cheney said: "I mean, this took place inside the Justice Department. The one who needs to answer to that and lay out on the record the specifics of what transpired is the attorney general, and he'll do so."
The same day, the Albuquerque Journal reported that one of the federal prosecutors, US attorney David Iglesias, was fired after Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico made a personal appeal to the White House. Domenici had complained to Gonzales about Iglesias, the newspaper reported, but Gonzales said he would fire Iglesias only on orders from the president. Domenici subsequently spoke to Karl Rove, senior political adviser to President Bush, and then to Bush himself. Iglesias's name was a last-minute addition to the list of prosecutors to be fired.
News accounts like that make it hard for the White House to keep its distance from the controversy. Gonzales makes it even harder. His credibility is now so undermined, it is difficult to believe anything he says. That is a sad statement to be able to make about the nation's top law enforcement official.
The embattled attorney general is scheduled to testify today to explain the circumstances around the firings. His appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, originally scheduled for Tuesday, was postponed in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings.
So far, Gonzales admits to "missteps" that include conflicting statements about his personal involvement in the matter. At a March 13 news conference, Gonzales said that he "was not involved in any discussions about what was going on." However, in a statement prepared for delivery to the Senate committee and released over the weekend, Gonzales said that he "misspoke" on March 13. He acknowledged that he was "periodically updated" about a job performance review of the US attorneys conducted at his behest by his then chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson. Of the conficting versions he offered about his role, Gonzales said: "I certainly understand why these statements generated confusion, and I regret that."
In the statement, Gonzales also apologized to the US attorneys "for allowing this matter to become an unfortunate and undignified spectacle" and said, "I am sorry for my missteps that have helped to fuel the controversy."
Being sorry was not enough to save Don Imus, and it shouldn't be enough to save Gonzales.
But more important than the issue of one man's employment is this bigger question: Can the public ever get a straight answer from anyone in the Bush administration? The answer appears to be no, whether the matter is foreign or domestic.
Bush ran for the White House pledging to bring a higher standard of honesty to the Oval Office. But, from war to hurricanes, that hasn't been the case. The firing of the federal prosecutors is just one more example of an administration committed to never owning up to the truth.
These federal prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the president. So the White House could have acknowledged that the president sought some of these resignations. The problem here is that prosecutors don't serve simply to carry out any president's political priorities. Partisan considerations are not supposed to affect a prosecutorial agenda, even though they sometimes do. The White House clearly didn't want to take the heat for any such appearance. In this case, news reports like the recent one in the Albuquerque Journal, along with various e-mail correspondence, reveal a strong White House interest in getting certain people appointed as prosecutors.
In a March 7 op-ed published in USA Today, Gonzales said the prosecutors were fired for "what have been referred to broadly as 'performance-related' reasons." But that has since been disputed in testimony from others in the Justice Department loop who said they were unaware of performance problems, up until the attorneys were fired.
To get back to Cheney's statement on "Face the Nation," the "specifics of what transpired" go beyond Gonzales and the Justice Department. They go straight to the White House, which explains why the White House is fighting efforts by some in Congress to force the sworn testimony of top aides like Rove and obtain more e-mail correspondence.
The truth is never an option for the Bush White House. Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company