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Fight over Attorney Firings Prompts Subpoena Showdown

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Good morning. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

We have news this hour from the House of Representatives. The Judiciary Subcommittee has voted to authorize subpoenas for White House aides, including Karl Rove, President Bush's top political advisor. The committee wants to know about the role those aides might have played in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, and whether politics played a part. The House vote sets up a showdown between the Democratically-controlled Congress and the White House - which has said aides could meet privately with members of Congress, but not under oath.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Here's a behind-the-scenes picture that was partially revealed by Justice Department documents made public this week. It was Tuesday, November 7th - Election Day. As votes were being counted across the country that would give Democrats control of Congress, Justice Department Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson e-mailed a colleague with a plan to fire half a dozen U.S. attorneys. Please comment as soon as possible, he wrote. I'd like to get this to Harriet tonight.

Harriet was then-White House counsel Harriet Miers. Eight days later Miers wrote back, saying she wasn't sure whether the firings required the boss's attention. The boss was President Bush.

There's no evidence the president personally signed off on the firings, but on December 4th, a deputy in Harriet Miers' White House office gave the green light and calls began going out, telling the affected prosecutors to pack their bags. That close coordination between the Justice Department and the White House is part of what worries Democrat Charles Schumer of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He says it tarnishes the independence of federal prosecutors in the field.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): When documents in the past have said that loyal Bushees are given the better ratings, what is the public supposed to believe? It is so important that six months from now when a U.S. attorney indicts, particularly a public official and that public official's lawyer says - it's politics - that the public says - no, it isn't, we trust our U.S. attorneys. We trust the Justice Department. And that trust has been shaken.

HORSLEY: Both the White House and the Justice Department insist there was nothing improper about the firings, and they've turned over reams of internal documents in an effort to make that case. Still, lawmakers like Schumer say those documents raise more questions than they answer, in particular about what role the White House may have played.

Senator SCHUMER: The administration has had more stories than the Empire State Building. It just changes and changes and changes. And ask a good prosecutor, when the witness keeps changing stories, it's often the case that they have something to hide.

HORSLEY: Lawmakers want to hear directly from Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, and from Karl Rove, the president's political advisor. President Bush said yesterday his aides would be available for private, off-the-record interviews, but he would not allow the aides to testify under oath in a full congressional hearing, the way some lawmakers want.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants. Initial response by Democrats unfortunately shows some appear more interested in scoring political points than in learning the facts. It will be regrettable if they choose to head down the partisan road of issuing subpoenas and demanding show trials.

HORSLEY: Throughout the Bush administration the president and his advisors have jealously guarded their executive privilege, arguing that staffers wouldn't feel free to give candid advice if they had to worry about it being made public.

Political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute believes that's a valid argument. But he also says the administration has backed itself into a corner as it faces mounting political pressure for the aides to speak out in public.

Mr. NORMAN ORNSTEIN (American Enterprise Institute): There's one thing that we should have learned from episodes like this in the past. It is lance the boil; get it all out there right away. Don't get yourself into a position where you say something, then more information emerges in dribs and drabs that contradicts or muddies what you've said. This is a large problem that is more than anything a self-inflicted wound by the administration.

HORSLEY: Already, many of the documents turned over by the Justice Department are more about how the firings were communicated to Congress than how and why the eight U.S. attorneys were chosen for dismissal. President Bush stood by his attorney general yesterday, saying he still has faith in Alberto Gonzales. But the Senate voted to strip Gonzales of his power to appoint U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. Gonzales' Chief of Staff, Kyle Sampson, wrote an e-mail back in December acknowledging it was risky for the Justice Department to use that power to appoint one of Karl Rove's former assistants as U.S. attorney in Arkansas, but if we don't ever exercise the power, Sampson wrote, what's the point of having it?

Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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