In 2005, the White House considered an across-the-board purge of all US attorneys.

The White House suggested two years ago that the Justice Department fire all 93 US attorneys, a proposal that eventually resulted in the dismissals of eight prosecutors carried out last year, according to e-mails and internal documents that the administration will provide to Congress today.

Congress has requested the documents as part of an investigation by both Judiciary committees into whether the firings were politically motivated.

While it is unclear whether the documents answer that question, they show that the White House and other administration officials were more deeply involved in the dismissals, and at an earlier date, than they have acknowledged.

Seven US attorneys were fired Dec. 7 and another was fired months earlier, but with little explanation from the Justice Department.

Several former prosecutors have since alleged intimidation, including improper telephone calls from GOP lawmakers or their aides, and have alleged threats of retaliation by a Justice Department official.

Administration officials have repeatedly portrayed the firings as a routine personnel matter, designed primarily to rid the department of a handful of poor performers.

But the documents and interviews indicate that the idea of the firings originated at least two years ago, in February 2005, with former White House counsel Harriet Miers suggesting that all prosecutors be dismissed and replaced with new personnel.

US attorneys are appointed by the President, confirmed by Congress, and can be fired without cause by the President. However, prior to the recent purge there were just five instances of an attorney being fired or resigning in a 25 year span (not including attorneys not being reappointed at the end of their 4 year term), so this kind of behavior is wildly unusual. The USA Patriot Act changed the law when it came to filling vacant US attorney positions – before, an interim attorney could be appointed by the Attorney General and serve for a maximum of 120 days before being replaced by an attorney selected by a federal judge until a replacement could be confirmed by Congress. Now, the Attorney General can select an interim US attorney who can serve indefinitely. This is clearly a power-grab by the Executive, intending to circumvent Congressional oversight on US attorney appointments, and firing 100% of US attorneys would be as blatant an abuse of power as Bush has attempted to date, in my opinion. And given the nature of the recent firings, there seems little doubt that this would have been done to ensure that federal prosecutors were friendly to the Bush Administration across-the-board, and could make decisions about who and what to prosecute that would be politically beneficial to Bush.

Pathetic. Fascist, even, using (or attempting to use) the federal justice system to influence the election process.

UPDATE: The discussion prompted some additional searching on my part, and the excellent Mahablog figured all this out back in January, and explained it much better than I.

  • FYI – Clinton fired all 93 U.S. Attorneys as he was coming into office in 1993. The difference between his choice and Bush’s is that Clinton’s was sweeping and at the front of his term. Bush’s was halfway through the second term and appears to have been politically motivated.

  • Further clarification…

    However, the U.S. Attorneys at issue were all Bush appointees. This purge isn’t similar to a change in Administration as Clinton did in 1992 or Bush did in 2001. This is a purge to get political hacks behind the wheel of the federal criminal justice system.

  • I had forgotten about the 1993 action – which in and of itself is not terribly surprising, considering I was a snotty high school kid. However, making changes at the beginning of new administrations appears to be fairly common (Bush did it in 2001), and completely legal.

    What’s changed is the fact that the AG can indefinitely appoint interim replacements. Before, they were of limited duration, and permanent replacements required Congressional approval.

    Firing all prosecutors back in 2005 would have been an end-around on the appointee approval process, thus consolidating even more power in the Oval Office. And doing so midstream is very unusual (and clearly prompted by the rule changes put into effect by the Patriot Act).

    Mahablog hit a frickin’ grand slam on this back in January, and somehow I missed it until now.

    FWIW, I’m not opposed to a new administration coming in and doing some housekeeping prompted by policy differences. The firings that did happen appear to be politically motivated, and that’s some serious weak sauce. Firing everybody would have allowed the defacto appointment of political operatives in every federal judicial district in charge of prosecuting federal crimes due to the virtual elimination of Congressional oversight ability. Frankly, I’m surprised Rove didn’t think the idea brilliant.

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