In firings’ wake, Dems on duty

It now seems clear that the U.S. attorney firing story has blossomed into a full-blown scandal. Two of the eight fired attorneys have alleged specific instances in which members of Congress or their staffs tried to goad them into dropping indictments against Democrats. One of the longest-serving members of the Senate, Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, has just hired a lawyer to defend his apparent role in trying to get former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to indict a New Mexico state Democrat to help his protégé Rep. Heather Wilson (R) hold on to her seat in last November’s election.

There will be plenty of time to speculate about the administration’s motives in this affair and scope out new paths for the expanding investigation. But the real story behind the quickening pace of revelations over the last six weeks is something that is easy to miss: old-fashioned congressional oversight.

So much of what the Bush administration has been able to get away with over the last six years has been possible only because — with only a brief exception — Congress has not only been in the hands of the president’s party but ruled by a leadership focused almost entirely on covering up presidential wrongdoing rather than exercising meaningful oversight of the executive branch.

Let’s review the history.

News of the U.S. attorney firings first surfaced back in January. It garnered attention almost entirely because one of the firees was San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam. Best known for her successful investigation of disgraced former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), Lam’s investigation had continued into the heart of the CIA and deep into the congressional appropriations process. Lam’s dismissal raised immediate red flags. Dan Dzwilewski, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego field office, went so far as to tell the San Diego Union-Tribune, “I guarantee politics is involved.”

Within a week it emerged that as many as a half-dozen other U.S. attorneys had been forced out under similarly unexplained circumstances at roughly the same time. That was enough to get Bush administration critics asking questions. But the story might well have languished there, in the netherworld of Bush White House quasi-scandals, had it not been for questions asked of Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty at a Senate hearing early last month.

The eight fired U.S. attorneys seemed inclined to go quietly until McNulty told the Senate that they’d been let go for “performance-related” problems. A review of the attorneys’ performance evaluations quickly cast doubt on that explanation. And it was also enough to get the fired attorneys talking.

Soon Iglesias was telling friends in New Mexico that his dismissal had been a “political fragging.” Then he spilled the beans about the calls from Domenici and Wilson that he believes were behind his firing. That prompted a new round of hearings, which speedily revealed that something very similar had happened to former U.S. Attorney John McKay in Washington. 

At each step along the way in this scandal, hints of wrongdoing were casually dismissed by Justice Department and White House officials, much as they have been in similar cases over recent years. But getting people up on the Hill under oath quickly changed the story, tangling administration officials up in a series of misstatements and contradictions. That’s oversight and checks and balances in action. Maybe if there’d been any of it in recent years the folks at Justice and the White House would have known not even to try something so brazen.

Marshall is editor of talkingpointsmemo.com.
His column appears in The Hill each week.
E-mail: jmarshall@thehill.com