Joe Conason, national correspondent for The New York Observer, columnist for Salon.com and head of The Nation Institute Investigative Fund. His latest book is It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush.
Newly released emails confirm the White House worked with the Justice Department to fire eight U.S. attorneys. The decisions were made in part on whether the prosecutors "exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general." On Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers said they now want to question White House adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Calls for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign are increasing as more details emerge on how the Justice Department worked with the White House to fire eight U.S. attorneys. Gonzales acknowledged Tuesday mistakes had been made, but refused to step down.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers said they want to question White House adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. The House Judiciary Committee released a series of emails and documents that show the White House initiated the process more than two years ago that led to the dismissals. The decisions were made in part on whether the prosecutors "exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general."
In one case, the attorney general’s chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, who resigned on Monday, urged the White House counsel’s office to call him regarding "the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam." Carol Lam was the U.S. attorney in Southern California who was leading the investigation of former Republican Congressmember Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who went to jail. Sampson’s email came on May 11, 2006, the same day the Los Angeles Times reported that Lam’s investigation was expanding to include another California Republican, Congressmember Jerry Lewis. Carol Lam later became one of the eight prosecutors fired.
In a few minutes, we will speak with journalist Joe Conason. He’s been following the story closely. But first, we turn to the testimony of David Iglesias. He was dismissed as U.S. attorney in New Mexico. He testified before the Senate last week. He was questioned by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.
DAVID IGLESIAS: I was at home. This was the only time I’d ever received a call from any member of Congress while at home during my tenure as United States attorney for New Mexico. Mr. Bell called me. I was in my bedroom. My wife was nearby. And he indicated that the senator wanted to speak with me. He indicated that there were some complaints by some citizens, so I said, "OK." And he says, "Here’s the senator." So he handed the phone over, and I recognized the voice as being Senator Pete Domenici.
And he wanted to ask me about the corruption matters or the corruption cases that had been widely reported in the local media. I said, "All right." And he said, "Are these going to be filed before November?" And I said I didn’t think so. And to which he replied, "I’m very sorry to hear that." And then the line went dead.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: So, in other words, he hung up on you?
DAVID IGLESIAS: That’s how I took that. Yes, sir.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: And you didn’t say goodbye or anything like that?
DAVID IGLESIAS: No, sir.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: Now did you take that as a sign of his unhappiness with your decision?
DAVID IGLESIAS: I felt sick afterward. So I felt he was upset that — at hearing the answer that he received.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: Right. And so, is it fair to say that you felt pressured to hurry subsequent cases and prosecutions as a result of the call?
DAVID IGLESIAS: Yes, sir. I did. I felt leaned on. I felt pressured to get these matters moving.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: And as you say, it was unusual for you to receive a call from a senator at home while you were the U.S. attorney.
DAVID IGLESIAS: Unprecedented. It had never happened.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: OK. How long after that contact with Senator Domenici were you fired?
DAVID IGLESIAS: Approximately six weeks later, five weeks later, thereabouts.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: Thank you. Now, let’s go on to the call of Heather Wilson. Did the call with Congresswoman Wilson occur before or after your conversation with Senator Domenici?
DAVID IGLESIAS: The call from Congresswoman Wilson was approximately two weeks prior to the call from Senator Domenici.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: You remember the day or date of that one?
DAVID IGLESIAS: It was on or about the 16th of October.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: Got it. And please describe for the committee, as best you can, your entire recollection of that communication. Tell us what Congresswoman Wilson said, and what you said.
DAVID IGLESIAS: That was also a very brief conversation. She mentioned — well, I mentioned I was just coming into Washington, D.C., and she joked, "Well I’m sorry to hear that." She then asked me about — she’d been hearing about sealed indictments, and she said, "What can you tell me about sealed indictments?"
The second she said any question about sealed indictments, red flags went up in my head, because, as you know, we cannot talk about indictments until they’re made public. In general, we specifically cannot talk about a sealed indictment. It’s like calling up a scientist at Sandia laboratories and asking them to — let’s talk about those secret codes, those launch codes. So I was evasive and nonresponsive to her questions. I said, "Well, we sometimes do sealed indictments for national security cases; sometimes we have to do them for juvenile cases." And she was not happy with that answer. And then she said, "Well, I guess I’ll have to take your word for it." And I said — I don’t think I responded — "Goodbye," and that was the substance of that conversation.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: Did you feel pressured during that call?
DAVID IGLESIAS: Yes, sir. I did.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: OK. Did you feel as sick as you did after the second call?
DAVID IGLESIAS: Not as sick, because I didn’t think there would be any more communications.
AMY GOODMAN: That was former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias testifying last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was questioned by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.
The political journalist Joe Conason joins me now in our firehouse studio, national correspondent for The New York Observer, columnist for Salon.com. He is also director of the investigative unit at The Nation Institute. He has been following this story closely and has a new book, which is called It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush. Welcome to Democracy Now!
JOE CONASON: Good to be with you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you here, Joe. Talk about the significance of this case, the whole U.S. attorney series of firings.
JOE CONASON: Well, the way these firings were handled and the apparent purpose of them, which is partisan and political so far, as far as we can tell, is really a violation of traditional protections of federal law enforcement from partisan control. My view is that partisan control of these functions, partisan control of the prosecutorial process, is the sign of life in a banana republic, as you might say, a type of government we have been trying to escape in this country for hundreds of years, where the sovereign, the executive, misuses or can misuse prosecutorial action against political enemies.
These eight attorneys, in different ways, appear to have been — had their loyalty questioned to the president, which, by the way, is not where their loyalty is supposed to go anyway — their loyalty is to the Constitution —- because either they were pursuing Republicans or not pursuing Democrats as the president wished. This is why the involvement in this matter of the president’s political adviser Karl Rove is of such great interest to the Congress now. They want to understand why the White House counsel Harriet Miers and Karl Rove got so involved in apparently helping to choose which U.S. attorneys, who are very, very powerful officials in the justice system, would be removed. And -—
AMY GOODMAN: Now, first, they were going to fire all of them, right? All the U.S. attorneys, they claim.
JOE CONASON: Well, they said they were going to, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And then whittled it down to eight.
JOE CONASON: Well, firing all of them, I guess, would have had the benefit of making it more confusing as to the reason why. But somebody in the system decided that would be much too disruptive to the entire justice system to fire them all in the middle of the president’s term.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what U.S. attorneys do. Why are they so significant?
JOE CONASON: U.S. attorneys make the decisions about who to prosecute in federal criminal cases every day. They are the front line. There are cases that get bumped up to what’s called main justice in Washington, where various assistants to the attorney general help to make these decisions. For instance, tradition was for a long time that if you were going to prosecute a journalist for refusing to testify, that was a decision that had to be made by the attorney general. But usual cases — drug cases, immigration cases, corruption cases, you know, federal bank robbery cases, those kinds — all those kinds of cases are handled by the U.S. attorney on the federal district level in each state, and they have a tremendous amount of power, which is supposed to be exercised independently. They are confirmed by the Senate. And they do serve at the pleasure of the president, but there are supposed to be checks and balances that ensure their independence.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Joe Conason. He is director of the investigative unit at The Nation Institute and author of a new book, It Can Happen Here. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our discussion on the purging of eight U.S. attorneys, let’s turn to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He spoke about the scandal Tuesday.
ALBERTO GONZALES: I believe in the independence of our U.S. attorneys. They are the face of the department. They are my representative in the community. I acknowledge their sacrifice. I acknowledge their courage to step into the arena on behalf of the American people.
Secondly, the attorney general, all political appointees, such as U.S. attorneys, serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States.
Third, I believe fundamentally in the constitutional role of the Senate in advice and consent with respect to U.S. attorneys and would in no way support an effort to circumvent that constitutional role.
I believe in accountability. Like every CEO of a major organization, I am responsible for what happens at the Department of Justice. I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility, and my pledge to the American people is to find out what went wrong here, to assess accountability, and to make improvements so that the mistakes that occurred in this instance do not occur again in the future.
Finally, let me just say one thing: I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles in my life to become attorney general. I am here not because I give up. I am here because I’ve learned from my mistakes, because I accept responsibility, and because I am committed to doing my job. And that is what I intend to do here on behalf of the American people.
AMY GOODMAN: Minutes after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spoke to reporters, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer responded from the floor of the Senate.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: His time in office should be over. The U.S. attorney scandal, all the other instances where the attorney general did not protect the rule of law, are just too great a weight for the office to bear. To simply say, "I’m responsible," and not tell people what it’s all about, makes no sense.
You know, we just saw Scooter Libby be convicted. Many said he was a fall guy. We’re not going to have another Scooter Libby, another fall guy. Kyle Sampson did many wrong things, and it’s very possible he broke the criminal law. But as Harry Truman said, the buck stops at the top. The buck stops with the attorney general. And it defies belief that his chief of staff was making all these major decisions without his knowledge, particularly when it is clear that at least on a few instances he admits he had phone calls from the president and from others about this issue.
AMY GOODMAN: New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer. Joe Conason, our guest, he’s author of It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush. Is, do you think, Alberto Gonzales going to be forced out?
JOE CONASON: Well, to be blunt, I think he should be. I wrote that in Salon the other day. I don’t know if he will be forced out. It seems as if, right now, the White House is kind of circling around him and protecting him. And I think there’s going to be a big confrontation, really, between the White House and the Congress, not only over the fate of Gonzales, who is now claiming that he’s going to investigate himself, essentially, for what he did, but whether Rove and Miers have to testify. There will be a fight over executive powers as to whether these two are forced to testify about exactly how all of this went down.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Nevada and what happened there.
JOE CONASON: Well, the U.S. attorney in northern Nevada — his name is Daniel Bogden — was one of the eight U.S. attorneys who was fired in December —- or seven were fired in December. And John Ensign, who is the Republican senator, junior senator from Nevada, who almost never says anything, particularly anything against Bush, and who was chosen to be the next head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is their re-election committee, has been screaming about this. Why? Because he feels that he was lied to, essentially, by the attorney general and the Justice Department over the reasons for the firing of Bogden. He was told that this was for performance-related reasons. And then it came out this was not about performance, because this attorney general’s performance was very good. I mean, the evaluations all showed that actually all of the seven who were fired -—
AMY GOODMAN: And the aide testified in the Senate, saying it was not over an issue of performance.
JOE CONASON: It was not. There’s no evidence that there was any lack of performance on their part at all. In fact, you could say that Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney for San Diego who was fired by indicting and uncovering this enormous bribery scheme of Duke Cunningham, did one of the best jobs of any U.S. attorney in recent years. The fact that they would fire somebody who had done that really tells you where this was going.
AMY GOODMAN: Put Randy "Duke" Cunningham behind bars.
JOE CONASON: Put him behind bars and continued to explore this rather large criminal conspiracy that he was at the center of, which includes other members of Congress, potentially other government officials.
AMY GOODMAN: You write about Alberto Gonzales in your book It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush. Fit Gonzales into the picture that you have drawn of this country.
JOE CONASON: Well, again, you know, the attorney general, for the same reasons that you want independent U.S. attorneys, the attorney general is supposed to have a measure of independence from the White House. This is why people raised questions when Robert Kennedy was appointed attorney general by his brother years ago. Alberto Gonzales is not regarded as a figure of independence and probity. He is a yes man for George W. Bush, and he always has been. And the fear — he was when he was White House counsel. And the other problem that I think the Congress now increasingly has with him is they don’t feel he’s truthful with them. They don’t feel that he respects the separation of powers. They feel that he represents the idea of the unitary executive, which is to say an executive branch that has aggrandized power to itself and doesn’t feel accountable to the other branches.
AMY GOODMAN: The Democrats have vowed to repeal a portion of the PATRIOT Act that says that the provision allows the U.S. attorney general to replace prosecutors without Senate confirmation.
JOE CONASON: Right. Well, that was, again, a piece of legislation that was apparently sneaked into the PATRIOT Act by somebody acting on behalf of the White House to reduce the powers of the Senate, although it was done under the name of a senator, Arlen Specter, who then said he didn’t know that this had happened. This was a stunning development, and this is one of the reasons why the senators are finally starting to realize what the implications are of this White House philosophy of aggrandized power. It is turning them into a rubber stamp.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Alberto Gonzales told the Senate that the president would not intervene if Congress passed a reversal of the firings.
JOE CONASON: Well, yes. I think they feel in a somewhat weakened state right now. But, of course, Gonzales promised long ago that they would never appoint U.S. attorneys that weren’t confirmed by the Senate. That turned out not to be true. He told them that he would inform them if there was warrantless wiretapping, when he was first confirmed. Senator Feingold asked him, you know, "Would you inform us in a timely way if you ever decided to use these kinds of powers?" And Gonzales said, "Yes, sir." And he was lying at the moment he said that, because he knew that they had already undertaken that program. So there’s a reason why the Senate is, at this point, more than skeptical of Alberto Gonzales. And some of them are ready to say he’s got to go.
AMY GOODMAN: The testimony of Iglesias was very chilling, the U.S. attorney from New Mexico who was fired. He talked about the two politicians intervening: the hotly contested seat of Heather Wilson, that she did, he said, the Republican congressmember, and Senator Pete Domenici, who, as you said, has now lawyered up. Talk about his lawyer, Blalock.
JOE CONASON: Well, Blalock happens, of all things, to have been one of the criminal attorneys for Duke Cunningham, which I thought was a bad choice from what in Washington they call the optics of the situation. You don’t really want people looking at it that way. It’s a little too close to home. I believe that Heather Wilson — I’m pretty sure she has also gotten herself a defense counsel. I think they’re worried. You know, at worst this could be seen as an attempt to obstruct justice on their part. I’m not saying they’re going to be indicted or that they did that crime, but clearly they felt the need for defense counsel. I think there will be ethics investigations of both of them and also of Doc Hastings in Washington state, who participated in a similar attempt to pull the rug out from under a U.S. attorney. I mean, these are extremely serious charges.
AMY GOODMAN: It Can Happen Here.
JOE CONASON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you choose that title?
JOE CONASON: That’s the title — well, there was a book in 1935 written by Sinclair Lewis called It Can’t Happen Here, which was kind of a satirical novel about the rise of fascism in the United States, which doesn’t sound like a very funny subject, but he managed to bring some humor to a very grim subject, which was our descent into an authoritarian state after the 1936 election.
Sinclair Lewis was married at the time to a foreign correspondent named Dorothy Thompson, who was one of the greatest of her time and maybe of all time, who had been kicked out of Nazi Germany in 1934 and had come home — for telling the truth about Hitler — and had come home and basically spent a lot of time telling her husband that the world was on the verge of a potential fascist takeover and he ought to try to do something about it. And this is why he wrote this novel.
I read that book at the urging of my editor at St. Martin’s Press, and it occurred to me that there were many striking parallels, actually, between what Sinclair Lewis had imagined as the kind of authoritarianism that could come to America and some of the things that we had been seeing in the last several years here.
AMY GOODMAN: You make some stark parallels between what’s happening now and the Nixon administration, when it came to trying to obliterate the checks and balances. Explain.
JOE CONASON: Right. Well, in his own clumsy way, Nixon was drawing all power into the White House, felt no accountability to Congress, felt that he could violate the law. You know, he told David Frost after he was forced from office that if the president does it, it’s not against the law, and which is false. And it was the statement that ended his presidency, really, that attitude.
But there were people who came to power under George W. Bush, principally the Vice President Dick Cheney, who were veterans of the Nixon administration, who felt that Nixon actually was the victim and who agreed with him that in times of emergency, which they regarded the protest against the Vietnam War as being part of an emergency in times of war — and they now see us involved in a war that has no end — that presidential power is absolute. Presidential power brooks no opposition or check from the legislative or judicial branches. And Cheney believes in that very strongly.
AMY GOODMAN: Cheney and secrecy, right through to the federal directory.
JOE CONASON: That’s right. Well, Cheney — that’s the vice president — does not tell the federal directory or anybody else who works in his office or what their jobs are, as a matter of policy, which is stunning, indeed.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about going back to DC 9/11, that movie about President Bush? Why does that fit in here? It’s like a docudrama. Who cares?
JOE CONASON: Well, you know, because it portrayed in an almost Soviet style — you know, Jim Hoberman, who’s the Village Voice film reviewer, compared it to the old Soviet movies about Stalin, in which Stalin was the infallible hero and, you know, was leading the country against the enemy. And it really kind of falsified what had happened on 9/11, in fact, with Bush sort of running around the country and not knowing what to do or what to say. None of us were supposed to pay attention to that at the time. And this film was made in order to create a false image of Bush as this infallible leader, the leader, the beloved leader type of thing, which is not what we do in democratic countries. That type of propaganda is — which was made, by the way, in full cooperation with the White House and Republicans in Hollywood — is just — it’s a type of thing that you see in countries that don’t have very good democratic traditions.
AMY GOODMAN: And Fox’s role in this? I mean, now Fox occupies the podium at the White House with the press spokesperson named Tony Snow.
JOE CONASON: Well, you know, in Sinclair Lewis’s book, all of the press was taken over, basically, by the government and expropriated, except for the Hearst Corporation’s newspapers and radio stations, which served the dictatorship very abjectly and basically did whatever the new president Buzz Windrip said. I draw some connection between that type of behavior and Fox’s behavior as a propaganda outlet for the White House in ways that I don’t think we’ve seen before in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: The rise of the religious right and particularly Ralph Reed.
JOE CONASON: Well, Ralph Reed served as a — he was a new type of operative, who made a connection between the traditional religious right, which was kind of at the grassroots in the churches, and the corporate lobbying world in Washington, which was a very critical alliance in the Republican Party, because what it did was combine money and propaganda power that existed in Washington with troops on the ground at election time. And this is the modern Republican Party, in many ways.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Joe Conason. He is author of It Can Happen Here. I want to end with the NSA letters and what they mean. Gonzales is embroiled in the U.S. attorney firing scandal. Now it’s become clear the FBI did not reveal the number of NSA letters that it gave out, particular talking about the secret databases, the cooperation of telecommunications companies. Explain what an NSA letter is. Why is this significant? Who is getting spied on?
JOE CONASON: A national security letter is essentially a — it allows the government to violate your constitutional rights without getting any warrant. I mean, it substitutes for a normal warrant in allowing them to go into your home, go into your communications, on the theory that you are some kind of a threat to the security of the United States. And when I say "you," the problem is it could, in theory, be anyone. It’s supposed to be a terrorist or somebody who’s connected with terrorism. But that definition is left very much in the dark, because there is no check and balance on it. And that’s one of the problems that people see with it now.
They have admitted, after an inspector general’s report looked into who was getting these letters and what they were being used for, that there have been abuses of it. And the FBI director, I thought, very forthrightly admitted the other day that not only were there abuses, but there wasn’t a system set up to make sure that abuses could be prevented. And this is exactly what people feared in the wake of the PATRIOT Act, that this kind of non-system would lead to, you know, grave abuses of people’s privacy and liberty.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the role of the media in increasing consolidating the power of the state. What about in fighting the rise of a fascist state?
JOE CONASON: Well, you know, the only way that — and I don’t think we’re anywhere close to a fascist state. Now, what we have is a group of people in government who have authoritarian impulses that they pursue and that they would like to pursue. And the only check against that is an informed citizenry, Amy, as you know. I mean, you help to do it every day. This is how people can oppose this, is only if they know what’s going on. And the mainstream media does, you know, a mediocre job of informing them every day, I’m afraid.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll end this conversation with the quote you begin with, Sinclair Lewis’s quote: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Where do you see us in the spectrum?
JOE CONASON: Well, right now, I actually feel hopeful, because, after all, you and I can sit here and talk about them and say whatever we want. And we did have an election last fall, in which the opposition won a pretty substantial victory, at least in the House. And now there are members of the House who have decided that they’re going to try to roll back some of these abuses. Jerrold Nadler, who’s now the chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, was with me in New York the other night, put out a long list of things that they intend to do to start to question and to change some of these abuses that we’ve seen in the last several years. Chris Dodd and Senator Pat Leahy, the Judiciary Committee, have already put in a bill to restore the writs of habeas corpus, which is one of the sort of grossest things that the administration did in passing the Military Commissions Act last year. So I think you’re going to see some pushback.
AMY GOODMAN: Joe Conason, thank you very much for joining us. It Can Happen Here is the title of his book, Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush.
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