WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected White House claims of executive privilege and demanded Thursday that key White House aides testify in the case of the controversial firings of U.S. attorneys.
The committee's investigation has found "significant and uncontroverted evidence that the president had no involvement in these firings," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said. Thus, the White House can't claim executive privilege or immunity, which are meant to protect private communications between a president and White House aides, he ruled.
The committee has issued subpoenas for White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former political adviser Karl Rove, among others.
The Bush administration has insisted that last year's firing of the attorneys was handled properly, but critics have charged that they were forced out for political motives and, in one case, to allow a protégé of Rove's to take one of the posts.
The ruling, which was expected, is a formal step necessary before the committee can vote to find the White House in contempt. Such a move would require a vote of the full Senate before being turned over to the U.S. attorney in Washington.
The attorney would have to decide whether to prosecute the administration that appointed him.
Besides Bolten and Rove, the committee issued subpoenas for former White House political director Sara Taylor and her deputy, Scott Jennings, both of whom Leahy and others on the committee think were involved in making political judgments on which U.S. attorneys to fire.
"In light of the evidence gathered by the committee showing the significant involvement of White House political officials in improper politicization of law enforcement, the White House is not entitled to withhold key evidence," Leahy wrote in his ruling.
He accused the White House and Justice Department of "lying, misleading, stonewalling, and ignoring the Congress" in its investigation.
"It is obvious that the reasons given for these firings were contrived as part of a cover-up and that the stonewalling by the White House is part and parcel of that same effort," Leahy wrote.
The White House has offered to allow Rove and others to be interviewed privately about their actions. The Democratic-led Congress has rejected that offer, in part, because of White House insistence no transcript be made.
The Judiciary Committee is likely to move on the matter in December, an aide to Leahy said.
Though U.S. attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president, the Justice Department's initial characterization of the dismissals as "performance-related" triggered angry protests from the former prosecutors. E-mail to a friend