(Photo: Brooks Kraft / TIME)
George W. Bush and his former top adviser, Karl Rove, were far more involved in the firings of nine US attorneys in 2006 than they had previously let on, according to internal Bush administration documents and interviews Rove gave to two major newspapers earlier this month.
The disclosures were made Thursday after Rove completed his second round of testimony behind closed doors before the House Judiciary Committee, which had recently struck a deal to secure Rove's and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers's testimony about their role in the dismissals of the federal prosecutors.
A Justice Department watchdog report released last year said the firings were largely politically motivated.
In March, Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers and lawyers working with the panel, with the help of White House Counsel Gregory Craig, brokered a deal that resulted in Rove agreeing to testify before the committee privately with the possibility that he may be called to testify publicly at a later date.
According to a news release issued by Conyers in March, Rove and Miers, while not under oath, agreed to take part in "transcribed depositions under penalty of perjury." Conyers said an agreement was reached "that invocations of official privileges would be significantly limited."
Rove sat down for an interview with the Post and the Times earlier this month and the publications entered into an agreement with him that they would not publish a report until he completed his interview with the Judiciary Committee. Rove's interview with the newspapers, in which he portrayed himself as a victim of "grievances," appears to be an end run around the Judiciary Committee's imminent release of the transcript of his testimony.
That would also be consistent with Rove's attempt to get ahead of another matter for which he was being scrutinized for by the Judiciary Committee: the prosecution of Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman.
Earlier this year and before he was interviewed by the Judiciary Committee, Rove told Fox News host Chris Wallace that he has already responded to questions about Siegelman's prosecution and has posted his answers to 14 written questions on his web site, Rove.com, in which he denied playing any role in the Siegelman case.
The questions were posed last July by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee, who has been a vocal critic of the panel's chairman John Conyers's attempts to force Rove to comply with numerous Congressional subpoenas.
It's unknown how Rove answered the Judiciary Committee's question in the US attorney firings, but his interviews with the Post suggest Rove's responses were similar.
Emails obtained by the Post and the Times show that Rove was the recipient of complaints from lawmakers about former New Mexico US Attorney David Iglesias and Rove personally acted upon those complaints by communicating with Miers and the Justice Department in the months before Iglesias was fired.
Rove told The New York Times that he believed Bush "had been informed of the decision to let the prosecutors go."
In an interview with the Post, Rove also said he's "sure" Bush was told about the firings in advance.
"Maybe Harriet [Miers] talked to him about it," Rove said. "I'm sure they did walk in at the end and say, 'Mr. President, we want to make a change here.'"
That revelation would contradict numerous public statements made by White House spokespersons Tony Fratto and Dana Perino that Bush did not play a role nor was he involved in the decision to dismiss the US attorneys and that the decision emanated from the Department of Justice.
"[T]here is no indication that the President knew about any of the ongoing discussions [about firing US attorneys] over the two years, nor did he see a list or a plan before it was carried out," Perino told reporters in March 2007.
There were also fierce denials from the White House that Rove was involved in the dismissals. In the interviews, Rove described himself as a "conduit" for complaints about the US attorneys.
He said he received complaints from top aides to former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) about the handling of public corruption and voter fraud cases by David Iglesias, the state's US attorney, prior to the 2006 midterm elections.
"I was the recipient of complaints," Rove told the Times, referring to Iglesias. "I passed them on to Harriet Miers to pass on to the Justice Department."
One of the emails obtained by The Washington Post showed that Rove's top aide, Scott Jennings, sent Rove an email on October 10, 2006, stating that he received "a call from [Domenici's former chief of staff] Steve Bell tonight.... Last week Sen. Domenici reached [Bush's chief of staff Josh Bolten] and asked that we remove the US Atty. Steve wanted to make sure we all understood that they couldn't be more serious about this request."
Rove added that he assumed Miers had informed Bush about the decision to fire Iglesias.
Last year, a 356-page report prepared by DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine and the head of the agency's Office of Professional Responsibility H. Marshall Jarrett, concluded that Bush and Rove helped to orchestrate the firing of Iglesias after receiving complaints from Republican activists that Iglesias did not prosecute individuals for voter fraud before the 2006 midterm elections.
The report said Bush and Rove "spoke with Attorney General Gonzales in October 2006 about their concerns over voter fraud in three cities, one of which was Albuquerque, New Mexico," and concerns Domenici had about Iglesias's job performance, but those specific findings went largely unreported.
Other emails obtained by the Times and the Post showed that in November 2006, one month before the firings, Rove asked Jennings to provide him with "a report on what US Attorneys slot are vacant or expected to be open soon."
"Yes, sir," Jennings said.
In an interview Thursday, Iglesias said he was "not surprised" Bush "got involved in the decisions to dismiss the prosecutors.
"For something that became this politicized it had to get his input his approval," Iglesias said. "I suspect when all the evidence comes out he wasn't just in the loop he approved it."
Iglesias said he has long suspected that Rove's "fingerprints were all over this."
In an on-camera interview with me two years ago, Iglesias said he believed "somewhere on an RNC computer - on some server somewhere - there's an email from Karl Rove stating why we need to be axed."
Back then, he said he believed a "smoking gun" would eventually surface and lead directly to Karl Rove and blow the scandal wide open.
Iglesias added that the complaints about him from Domenici's office that accelerated in the weeks before the 2006 midterm election were "tied to [New Mexico Rep.] Heather Wilson's reelection campaign."
Wilson had been locked in a tight race with Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid and had won the race by 800 votes.
Iglesias said he had been pressured by Wilson and Domenici to secure indictments against state officials targeted in a corruption probe.
"The e-mail timing [in October 2006] corroborates what I suspected," Iglesias said. Domenici and other New Mexico Republican Party officials "wanted me to file indictments and [Wilson] would benefit. They wanted to use me and my office as a political tool."
The US attorney scandal, which resulted in the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and numerous other Justice Department officials, is now a criminal probe being lead by Nora Dannehy, a federal prosecutor from Connecticut, who was appointed special counsel last September by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
Dannehy has convened a grand jury and interviewed Rove and Miers and Jennings and subpoenaed documents from Domenici. Dannehy has also been scrutinizing Gonzales's role in the matter, according to legal sources knowledgeable about her probe.
Iglesias said given that Dannehy has access to "a lot of the facts ... there still may be obstruction of justice charges" filed.
"I can't believe Gonzales did not know what was going on," Iglesias said, suggesting that the former attorney general may be one of Dannehy's targets.
Legal sources said Dannehy "is very close to wrapping up" her investigation, but it's unclear whether she intends to file a public report. And unless she can prove there was a conspiracy to obstruct justice, it's unlikely any member of the Bush administration involved in the firings will be charged.