Friday, March 30, 2007

With friends like these....

What’s most important to remember, about Kyle Sampson’s Senate testimony yesterday, was that he actually intended his remarks to be a defense of Bush administration behavior in the prosecutor purge scandal.

The former number-two man at Justice started the day by insisting that the unprecedented midterm firings of eight federal prosecutors was no big deal, just a “badly mishandled” snafu; but after many hours of being sliced and diced by his questioners, he wound up looking like a witness for the administration’s accusers. For instance:

1. Sampson drove another nail into attorney general Alberto Gonzales, with statements suggesting that his former boss, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, is a serial liar. Gonzales has insisted that he never had any “discussions” about “where things stood” on the firing front – yet here was his own chief of staff insisting under oath that he had met with Gonzales five times dating back to 2005. Sampson stated: “I don’t think the attorney general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate.”

This prompted Senator Charles Grassley to say, “The bottom line is, we shouldn’ty have conflicting statements coming from somebody who is the top law enforcement officer of the United States, or his staff.” And that’s a Republican talking. (Gonzales is slated to testify again until April 17, assuming he lasts that long, but another three weeks in limbo should give him enough time to blur his recollections even further.)

2. Sampson documented the crucial role that Karl Rove played in the firings. This is the same Karl Role who played no role in the firings, according to initial Bush administration statements. Sampson himself had drafted a February letter to Congress, claiming that Rove had played no role in the decision to fire one federal prosecutor (who, at the time, was investigating the Republican governor of Missouri), and replace him with a political operative loyal to Rove. However, Sampson earlier this winter had emailed a colleague to say that Rove wanted his loyalist in that job. So naturally Sampson was asked yesterday to explain whether he had lied in the letter to Congress, or had lied in the email. He tried to split the difference, saying that he had only discussed this particular firing with Rove’s top aides, as opposed to Rove personally.

But he wasn’t done with Rove. He also testified that, on the eve of the 2006 elections, Rove complained to Gonzales about the failure of New Mexico’s federal prosecutor to aggressively pursue voter-fraud cases that, in essence, might help the GOP win a crucial House race. (That prosecutor, Republican David Iglesias, was fired on Dec. 7. He had previously been viewed, in Sampson’s words, as an “up and comer.” He has since stated repeatedly that he had insufficient legal grounds to bring indictments.) Given everything that Sampson said yesterday about Rove, it’s easy to see why Bush has decreed that Rove shall be questioned only in private and without a transcript.

3. Sampson undercut the fundamental Bush administration spin that the firings were defensible and even proper…by testifying that he wished the whole process had never been conducted in the first place: “I wish the Department hadn’t gone down this road at all, and I regret my role in it, and that’s one of the reasons I resigned.”

Senator Chuck Schumer then asked, “So if the choice were up to you, just thinking back on that fateful Dec. 7, would you now — knowing what you know now — have put David Iglesias on a list, choice solely up to you if he should be fired?” And Sampson replied, “In hindsight, sitting here today, I would not.”

4. Sampson provided another window into the Bush administration’s competence-challenged governing process. It’s hardly surprising that so many of the fired Bush-appointed prosecutors have been speaking out, wondering why they were fired in the first place, given their generally favorable performance ratings – because it turns out, as Sampson testified yesterday, that the firing process “was not scientific, nor was it extensively documented.” He also said this: "I don't remember keeping a very good file. It was a chart and notes that I would dump into my lower right desk drawer." (I'm sure that the prosecutors - and other public servants - will be heartened to learn that the Bush administration assesses their work in such a cavalier manner.)

If Bush remains as unpopular as he is now (61 percent negative, according to the latest Fox News poll, the lowest ever in a Fox survey), he won’t be able to credibly blame his standing on the congressional Democrats. The ineptitude of his own top people (under his lax supervision) has contributed mightily to his inexorable slide. And I plan to have more on the incompetence factor, and its role in the '08 race, in my newspaper column this Sunday.


By the way, Bush needn't worry, because Rush Limbaugh has his back. Which brings us to the quote of the day. After citing a new USA Today-Gallup poll which shows that 72 percent of the American people support a congressional probe of the firings, Rush had this to say: "72 percent of the American people, a bunch of blithering idiots who have no idea what they're talking about....that is just an indication of so much ignorance out there, lack of civics education and what have you."

Thursday, March 29, 2007

She remembers "team-building," but not much else

Today I’m going to follow the old Gene Roberts rule. Back when he was running the Philadelphia Inquirer, he would tell reporters to “zig while everyone else is zagging,” which was his way of saying not to follow the crowd. Therefore, since so many colleagues are currently tracking the Senate testimony of Kyle Sampson, the Justice Department figure who helped effectuate the federal prosecutor purges, I’ll focus instead on an underreported incident that occurred yesterday during a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing.

It featured Lurita Alexis Doan, a Bush appointee who runs the General Services Administration, an agency with a $60-billion budget that manages federal buildings and buys the equipment that its workers use. Don’t yawn. The GSA incident is directly related to the prosecutor purge scandal. It is another facet of the same Bush administration impulse to politicize the nonpartisan institutions of government, and make them subservient to the partisan needs of the White House.

I want to share a slice of Doan’s embarrassing testimony, but first it’s important to establish the context. It’s very simple:

The federal Hatch Act, enacted in 1939, prohibits federal employes (who work for all taxpayers) from engaging in partisan political activities in the workplace. But two months ago, on Jan. 26, GSA hosted a brown-bag employe lunch, starring Karl Rove’s deputy political director, J. Scott Jennings. Doan attended. Also participating, via teleconference, were 40 Republican appointees who work elsewhere in America. The Rove deputy, also via teleconference, gave a PowerPoint presentation. His topic: the 2008 House and Senate elections, with rundowns on which Democrats would be targeted and which Republicans should be defended.

Was this a Hatch Act violation? I report, you decide.

The White House political shop sent the Jennings material over to GSA one week in advance of the brown-bag lunch, using a Republican National Committee email address. A Jennings assistant urged, "Please do not email this out or let people see it. It's a close hold and we're not supposed to be emailing it around." The recipient, at GSA, was a Doan assistant.

What sound does an animal make when caught in a leg trap? Let’s join the Wednesday testimony in progress, and hear the human equivalent.

Doan: “…Honestly, I don’t have a recollection of the presentation at all.”

Congressman Bruce Braley of Iowa then showed her the PowerPoint page listing Rove’s top Democratic targets of 2008. He asked Doan to acknowledge the political content therein.

Doan: “Yes, it appears – I honestly…I really truly don’t remember seeing this chart ‘til yesterday when I tried to dig it up. I don’t know what the explanation was that accompanied this. I truly do not remember this part of the presentation.”

Braley: Are you familiar with the word “target?”

Doan: “I think I can say I’m one right now, yes.”

Braley tries again, asking whether she agrees that this was political content.

Doan: “I appreciate your interpretation of that…This was not my meeting…I attended the meeting, yes.”

Braley tries again: Wasn’t this a political presentation, to target Democrats in an election?

Doan: “No, I would not say that. I’d say this is a slide that says, ‘2008 House targets, top 20.’ I do not want to speculate on what was intended by Mr. Jennings on this slide…I possibly saw it during the meeting…I don’t remember it during our meeting. I don’t remember the PowerPoint presentation clearly during our meeting.”

After several more exchanges, and finally getting Doan to acknowledge the obvious (you can watch the whole exchange here), Braley got to the gist of the matter: “What, if anything, do these slides have to do with the GSA’s core purpose of procuring supplies and managing federal buildings?”

Doan: “This brown-bag luncheon I believe has been mischaracterized. This is a meeting that is a team-building meeting…I try to attend whenever I can…We look upon this as team-building…I’m trying to build a superior management team…”

Braley noted that she had not answered his question, so he refined it, asking what a political election briefing had to do with “team-building.”

Doan: “This is a brown-bag luncheon…This is not my presentation.”

Braley then said that the Hatch Act banned “team-building” in the federal workplace for either political party. He then asked Doan about a couple remarks that she is alleged to have made at the conclusion of Jennings’ presentation. One witness, a Republican appointee, has stated in a deposition that Doan asked Jennings, “How can we use GSA to help our candidates in the next election.” Did Doan say that?

Doan: “I do not have a recollection of actually saying that.”

It gets worse. Another sworn witness recalls Doan asking Jennings, “How can we use different GSA projects – building openings and the like – to further aid other Republicans?” Braley wanted to know whether Doan had said that.

Doan: “I do not have a recollection of saying that.”

You get the idea. Just another day in the life of a waning administration, exposed for the first time to the pitiless glare of accountability.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

As Nebraska goes, so goes the nation

If you’re looking for a bellwether state in the Iraq debate, consider Nebraska. Those cornhuskers live in the center of the national map, and their two senators – as evidenced by their actions yesterday - are living proof that opposition to President Bush’s open-ended war is now the centrist stance in American politics.

Without crucial assists from conservative Democrat Ben Nelson and maverick Republican Chuck Hagel, the narrowly Democratic Senate would have failed yesterday to set a troop withdrawal date. Their support proved pivotal – the final vote was 50 to 48 – thus enabling the Senate to rebuke Bush for the first time and declare that America should essentially end, next year, its combat mission in Iraq.

Hagel’s vote was not a total surprise, given his persistent attacks on Bush’s war policy, but when a Republican who represents Nebraska feels comfortable opposing the war, that should tell you something about grassroots sentiment in Nebraska. And the same holds true for Nelson, who was talking skeptically about a withdrawal timeline as recently as two weeks ago.

This is a state, after all, where half the voters are registered Republicans, and only 34 percent are registered Democrats; where Bush won 66 percent of the vote in 2004, and 62 percent of the vote in 2000; and where, in presidential elections going back half a century, Republican candidates have averaged 61.1 percent of the vote – the highest percentage of any state, with the exception of Utah’s 61.6. Indeed, Nebraskans have supported GOP candidates in every presidential election going back 70 years, with the sole exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964.

But, lest we forget, it was a congressman from Nebraska who signaled early Republican restiveness about Iraq, back in 2004. When eight-term House GOP member Doug Bereuter, a former U.S. army intelligence officer, announced he would not seek re-election that year, he took the occasion to lambaste the war. He did it the old-fashioned way, by writing a letter to his local Nebraska newspaper:

“Knowing now what I know about the reliance on the tenuous or insufficiently corroborated intelligence used to conclude that Saddam maintained a substantial WMD arsenal, I believe that launching the pre-emptive military action was not justified….I've reached the conclusion, retrospectively, now that the inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions are being revealed, that all things being considered, it was a mistake to launch that military action, especially without a broad and engaged international coalition. The cost in casualties is already large and growing, and the immediate and long-term financial costs are incredible. Our country's reputation around the world has never been lower and our alliances are weakened. From the beginning of the conflict it was doubtful that we for long would be seen as liberators, but instead increasingly as an occupying force. Now we are immersed in a dangerous, costly mess and there is no easy and quick way to end our responsibilities in Iraq without creating bigger future problems in the region and, in general, in the Muslim world.”

One can argue, of course, that he bared his true feelings only because he was retiring, and that Nebraska voters in 2004 might not have appreciated such candor. But three years later, Hagel and Nelson have demonstrated, by their pivotal Senate decisions, that it’s probably not politically risky back home to take a public stance against the war.

And, Nebraska aside, that’s the centrist sentiment nationally. As always, the swing-voting independents are crucial in gauging the mood. In the latest poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 61 percent of independents support a troop withdrawal timeline, and 32 percent oppose (the overall electorate numbers are 59-33). Also, a plurality of independents – 41 percent – believe that the Democrats in Congress haven’t yet done enough to challenge Bush on the war; another 33 percent believe that the Democrats have done it “about right,” and only 20 percent say they’ve gone too far in challenging Bush. (Gallup, measuring support for a timeline, posted similar numbers the other day.)

Bush, as he indicated again this morning, will surely veto any bill with a timeline, triggering a confrontation with Congress over whether any strings should be attached to future troop funding. He will seek to paint the Democrats as wimps determined to sever all money to our “men and women in uniform,” and the Democrats don’t want to wear that label, because the same Gallup poll reports that a landslide majority does want the current troops to be funded.

But the Democrats are better positioned today, than ever before, to win the crucial PR battle with Bush, because most people are behind them. Politically speaking, this is ultimately a battle to shape public opinion for the 2008 election, and right now the Democratic congressional majority, as opposed to Bush, is clearly more in sync with the American center - as the two Nebraskans demonstrated yesterday.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Clamming up, zipping the lip, taking the Fifth

So now we have the legal adviser to the nation’s chief law enforcement officer declaring that she intends to take the Fifth.

Monica Goodling, senior counselor to attorney general Alberto “Fredo” Gonzales, said late yesterday (through her own lawyer) that she will invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and thus decline to answer any congressional questions about her role in the U.S. attorney purge scandal. By taking the Fifth, she may well be on solid legal ground, but her decision may not play well in the court of public opinion. Particularly in the wake of a new poll showing that Americans favor a congressional probe of this scandal by a margin of 3-1.

To put it charitably, the Bush administration already has a reputation for being less than truthful on a wide range of matters – and now we have a high-ranking Justice Department official, the legal liaison between Gonzales and the White House, opting to clam up. Goodling has certainly taken a daring position, befitting a graduate of Pat Robertson's Regent University law school, where the mission is "to produce Christian leaders who will make a difference, who will change the world."

Even for many conservatives, Goodling's zip-it strategy is an embarrassment. Terry Jeffrey, activist and editor of Human Events, told CNN yesterday afternoon: "Congress, its Judiciary Committees, they have oversight over the Justice Department. It's inexcusable for people in the Justice Department to take the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying in Congress. People there must go testify. There's no question about it." And as conservative blogger Ed Morrissey put it late yesterday, “People will rightly wonder why senior Justice officials cannot testify honestly to Congress without incriminating themselves – and they not going to blame Congress. The assumption will be that some crime got committed, because without a crime there's no chance of incrimination, at least not in the legal sense.”

That’s what is striking about the statement released by Goodling’s lawyer. Apparently, Goodling can’t afford to testify truthfully under oath because if she did so, somebody (perhaps her, perhaps a colleague, perhaps a superior) would be open to a perjury charge. That argument certainly doesn’t speak well for an administration which has sought to insist that (a) it did nothing wrong by firing those U.S. attorneys, and (b) it has been candid and consistent in saying so.

To which I ask, if the purge was supposedly no big deal (“overblown,” as Gonzales recently described it), then why are the players refusing to come clean about it? Why would Goodling take the Fifth, and why is the White House insisting that Karl Rove and Harriet Miers can be interviewed only in the absence of a transcript? And since I’m not a lawyer, I’m also wondering whether it is legally appropriate for Goodling to take the Fifth just because she thinks that her senatorial inquisitors are a bunch of meanies (her lawyer is complaining about “the hostile and questionable environment in the current congressional proceedings”).

In politics, symbols matter. Taking the Fifth is a durable constitutional right, but it won’t make the Bush regime look good to have the attorney general’s counsel following in the footsteps of people like Frank Costello (famed mobster who took the Fifth in 1950), crooked Teamster leader Dave Beck (who took the Fifth 200 times in 1957), Oliver North, and John Poindexter (figures in the Iran-Contra scandal). Fairly or not, many Americans have a gut instinct about people who take the Fifth; as President Dwight Eisenhower said during a press conference, commenting on Teamster hearings, “I must say I probably share the common reaction – If a man has to go to the Fifth Amendment, there must be something he doesn’t want to tell.”

On the other hand, Goodling would also be following in the footsteps of Zero Mostel, a Hollywood blacklist victim who is widely viewed with sympathy today. Mostel is also our winner of the Most Comedic Taking the Fifth Award.

Back in 1955, the rotund comic and entertainer was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, to explain why, in the late 1940s, he had performed for some groups that the panel deemed to be subversive. But whenever this was asked, he would simply hold up five fingers and wiggle them at his questioners. He did, however, agree to break his silence when asked about his current employment:

Q- “What studio are you with?”
A- “18th Century Fox.”
Q- “Do you want that statement to stand?”
A- “Make it 19th Century Fox.”


John Edwards is a crafty guy; no wonder he was so persuasive with juries. Most of the early reaction to his 60 Minutes interview about Elizabeth’s illness has centered on this (seemingly) selfless quote: “There's not a single person in America that should vote for me because Elizabeth has cancer. Not a one. If you're considering doing it, don't do it. Do not vote for us because you feel some sympathy or compassion for us. That would be an enormous mistake. The vote for the presidency is far too important for any of those things to influence it."

On the other hand, I found this remark to be more noteworthy: “Every single candidate running for president of the United States has a personal life that indicates something about what kind of human being they are, and I think it is a fair evaluation for Americans to make.”

Translation: He most certainly hopes that voters will factor his personal crisis into their thinking. That second statement throws down the gauntlet. What he’s essentially saying, in that remark, is this: “Look at Rudy Giuliani’s personal life (three wives), John McCain’s personal life (two wives), Newt Gingrich’s personal life (three wives) Hillary Clinton’s personal life (a late-night comic’s dream), and look at mine. Now show me the love.”


On the serious illness front, best wishes also to Tony Snow.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Who is Stuart Bowen, and how does he fit the pattern?

Given all we have learned in recent weeks about Bush administration misbehavior - the ill treatment of wounded soldiers (Walter Reed), the inability to tell the truth (Scooter Libby conviction), the firing of eight U.S. attorneys who were not deemed to be “loyal Bushies” (as one Justice aide termed it, in an email), the president’s invoking of “executive privilege” (a bid to bar top aides from telling the truth under oath), the attorney general’s credibility woes (see Saturday’s post) – the last thing you probably want to read right now is news of yet another performance debacle.

But this one is worth noting. It surfaced briefly in the press last Thursday, but was quickly trumped by bigger stories – such as the historic House vote on Iraq, and the potential collision between the White House and Congress over President Bush’s executive privilege invocation. Here’s the gist:

The Pentagon’s own internal watchdog, Special Inspector Stuart Bowen, released a report last Wednesday that skewered the Bush war planners for screwing up the reconstruction of Iraq, mainly by failing to anticipate the potential for anti-American violence; failing to put in place any procedures that would track the billions in reconstruction money and ensure that it was well spent; and failing, above all, to set up a command structure so that everybody would know who was in charge.

Bowen told reporters: "There was a lack of clarity of roles and responsibility and a lack of effective joint-ness. By that I mean a unity of command, and that needs to be developed before we go to war…the United States government was not well poised to execute the kind of relief and reconstruction operation that was presented in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.”

It’s not exactly major news, of course, that the Bush administration seems to lack basic competence skills, and this is hardly the first time that Bowen has exposed glaring war-planning deficiencies. After all, he already has authored roughly 300 reports, tracking wasted billions and various examples of price-gouging by a well-connected contractor, Halliburton. So why do I bother taking note of his new report?
For this reason: If Bush’s enablers on Capitol Hill had had their way last winter, we would not be getting any more reports from Stuart Bowen. Because he would have been out of a job by Oct. 1 of this year. And he would have been out of job because the job itself was targeted for elimination.

Last autumn, when the GOP was still running Congress, Bush-friendly lawmakers inserted an obscure provision in a defense bill to terminate the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The clause was inserted by Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee in a closed-door conference. The leader of this effort was panel chairman Duncan Hunter (who is now seeking the GOP presidential nomination). The maneuver was ultimately discovered by outraged lawmakers who had no advance warning that firing Bowen would be an item in the final legislation. In the end, there was a successful effort, by Democrats and some moderate Senate Republicans, to save Bowen’s job.

Can you spot the parallel to the U.S. attorney purge?

As one of those targeted federal prosecutors, John McKay, said yesterday on NBC, the job of a public servant is to “focus on the evidence and not allow politics into the work that we do.” (McKay, a Bush appointee, had refused to pursue a voter fraud case in the state of Washington, citing lack of evidence. The White House and the state GOP had wanted that case. Now he’s out of a job.) Similarly, Stuart Bowen has spent the past few years pursuing empirical facts with no regard for politics, but since those facts have repeatedly embarrassed the Bush team, he was deemed disposable.

And this is why the prosecutor purge is significant. It is merely part of a pattern, the attempted politicization of public servants who are supposed to work for the taxpayer, not for those who mistake partisan zeal for high purpose.


Speaking of partisan zeal, and the selective use of argument for partisan purposes, I bring you a senator newly returned to the GOP leadership, Trent Lott.

Here was Lott yesterday on Fox News, defending Bush’s decision to defy Congress and shield his top aides from testifying under oath about the prosecutor purge: “In my mind, I think if the President would agree for his close advisors in the White House to testify before Congress under oath, he’d be making a huge mistake. There is a thing called executive privilege.”

But here was Lott in 1998, lamenting President Clinton’s attempt to invoke executive privilege and thus shield his top aides from testifying under oath in the Lewinsky sex scandal: “(Clinton has) taken a step that really smacks of Watergate. It certainly looks bad - like there's something serious there that they're trying to hide….I think he should give up (invoking privilege). And I think he should be forthcoming. He should give us more information, not less.”

By the way, Clinton did give up. His aides did testify under oath. But when Fox host Chris Wallace pointed this out yesterday, Lott replied: “Well, yes, but that doesn't mean it was a smart thing to do, or that it should have been done.”

Wait a second….In 1998, hadn’t Lott argued in plain English that giving up the privilege claim was exactly what he thought Clinton should do?

What Lott demonstrates here is the craft of the true partisan warrior, the belief that facts are merely malleable weapons in the service of winning. (“Facts were being fixed around the policy,” as the British famously wrote in a 2002 memo about the Bush team’s decision-making style.) What apparently got most of those U.S. attorneys - and Stuart Bowen - into trouble was their inconvenient belief that the facts come first.