originally published at truthout.org
A new wrinkle over the apparent politicization of the Department of Justice (DOJ) emerged on Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing when a freshman Democratic lawmaker revealed the contents of a May 2006 memo. The memo, signed by embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, granted Vice President Dick Cheney extraordinary authority to review active federal civil and criminal investigations at the DOJ.
At the time the memo was signed by Gonzales, Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was preparing his defense on obstruction of justice and perjury charges involving the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson's name. Also, the special prosecutor who secured an indictment in the case on behalf of the government was reportedly trying to determine whether Cheney and numerous other White House officials also unmasked Plame's identity to reporters and lied about it to a grand jury and FBI investigators. Cheney had been interviewed about his role in the leak in 2004.
Gonzales testified on Tuesday before the Judiciary Committee on a wide range of legal issues under Congressional scrutiny.
Under intense questioning by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), Gonzales was shown a copy of the May 4, 2006 memo he signed authorizing Cheney, his chief of staff and his attorney to enter into direct discussions with Gonzales "regarding any matter within the Justice Department."
"The Attorney General may communicate directly with the President, Vice President, their Chiefs of Staff, Counsel to the President or Vice President, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Assistant to the President and Homeland Security Adviser, or the head of any office within the [Executive Office of the President] regarding any matter within the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice," states the memo. Moreover, the memo says Gonzales's staffers were also given authority to communicate directly with the officials in the office of the president and the office of the vice president on DOJ matters.
The issue is of particular concern to lawmakers and the legal community because the DOJ historically operates independently of the administration and without political interference of any kind. A similar memo was signed by former Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2002, but limited discussions between the DOJ and the White House to the office of the counsel of the president.
Gonzales's memo, on the other hand, seems to authorize discussion about pending DOJ cases to virtually hundreds of White House officials, and it seems to lend credibility to the assertion that perhaps some high-profile public corruption cases involving Republican lawmakers were scuttled due to interference by the Bush administration.
Elizabeth de la Vega, a former assistant US attorney and author of the book "US v. Bush," said Gonzales's memo is troubling because it supports claims the DOJ's first priority was to adhere to White House policies, as opposed to upholding the law.
"Alberto Gonzales's May 6 memo is nothing less than a subterfuge to open the doors of the Department of Justice to a seemingly endless number of people in both the president's and the vice president's offices, while purporting to shut those same doors," said de la Vega. She added, "As the attorney general's memo acknowledges, the work of the Department of Justice must be carried out impartially. It is for this precise reason that communications between the DOJ and the members of the executive branch must be strictly limited to avoid either the appearance of, or the fact of, political influence. The memo gives lip service to that concept, but in fact imposes 'rules' that are almost meaningless in effect. Not unlike the Dodo race in 'Alice in Wonderland,' it's as if 'Everybody has won and all shall have prizes.'"
Paul Charlton, the former US attorney for Arizona who was fired in December, agreed. In an  interview  with Truthout earlier this month, Charlton said one problem that plagues the DOJ is Gonzales has not behaved as an independent-minded prosecutor whose first concern is upholding the law. Charton said Gonzales continues to act like President Bush's "consigliere," and has failed to shed his previous title as White House counsel since being appointed attorney general. Gonzales was White House counsel from 2001 till February 2005, and also was Bush's personal attorney when the president was governor of Texas.
Whitehouse appeared to suggest as much, questioning Gonzales about the reasons Cheney would need to be involved in any criminal or civil matter under scrutiny by the DOJ. Gonzales said he did not recall the contents of the memo, and did not respond directly to Whitehouse's query. But, Gonzales said, he was "troubled" by the revelation. Gonzales did not say whether Cheney sought information about any of the DOJ's active investigations.
Tuesday's hearing, once again, saw the attorney general stating he could not recall specific meetings and conversations with underlings, vehemently disputing testimony by former DOJ staffers who declared Gonzales misled Congress and knew far more about the attorney firings and other issues than he has let on.
As has become common with all of Gonzales's appearances before various Congressional committees this year, he failed on Tuesday to provide responses to many of the committee's questions, and in other instances contradicted his own testimony given earlier this year. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, excoriated Gonzales, suggesting a review of his sworn testimony could lead the committee to bring perjury charges against the embattled attorney general.
The committee intends to "review your testimony to see if your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable," Specter told Gonzales. Specter added that a special prosecutor may need to be appointed to help unravel the circumstances behind the White House's involvement in the firings.
Charlton said appointing a special prosecutor may be the only way Congress will be able to find out whether the attorney firings were politically motivated and what role the White House played in the dismissals. Charlton said he believes an internal DOJ probe currently underway may conclude a special prosecutor must be appointed.