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Inside Politics

E-mails lay out plan to dismiss U.S. attorneys

Story Highlights

• Messages categorize attorneys as positive, neutral or "strikeout"
• White House, Justice Department coordinated decision-making
• Gonzales aide warned administration to prepare for "political upheaval"
• White House legislative, political, communications divisions signed off on plan
From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An e-mail from the Justice Department's Kyle Sampson in March 2005 laid out a simple formula for evaluating whether the 93 U.S. attorneys should stay or go.

On a chart given to then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers, Sampson -- chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales -- listed attorneys in three categories:

"Bold = Recommend retaining; strong U.S. attorneys who have managed well, and exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general.

"Strikeout = Recommend removing; weak U.S. attorneys who have been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against administration initiatives, etc.

"Nothing = No recommendation; have not distinguished themselves either positively or negatively."

Sampson was in charge of deciding which U.S. attorneys would be removed in a shakeup last year. Eight prosecutors were eventually removed. Sampson resigned from his post Monday, just as the e-mails he wrote were released publicly.

The e-mails show how closely officials in the White House and the Justice Department coordinated in deciding which names to include for firing, as well as the method and timing of the announcements. (Read Sampson's e-mail exchanges with administration officials - pdf)

The White House disclosed Tuesday the shakeup was first proposed by then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers, who wanted to replace all 93 U.S. attorneys with "fresh blood" after President Bush's re-election in 2004, spokesman Tony Snow said.

In a three-page memo dated January 1, 2006, Sampson noted the practical and political obstacles of dismissing U.S. attorneys.

"Wholesale removal of U.S. attorneys would cause significant disruption to the work of the Department of Justice," he wrote. "Individual U.S. attorneys often were originally recommended for appointment by a home-state senator who may be opposed to the president's determination to remove the U.S. attorney."

But Sampson concluded, "None of the above obstacles are insuperable," suggesting instead "the replacement of a limited number of U.S. attorneys," not the wholesale changes Miers wanted.

He then went on to recommend three U.S. attorneys for dismissal: Margaret Chiara of Michigan, Henry "Bud" Cummins of Arkansas and Carol Lam of California.

From the winter through the fall of 2006, Miers and Sampson traded e-mails, adding names and outlining the political fallout that might result from the prosecutors themselves and their congressional allies.

One e-mail involved efforts to replace Cummins with Timothy Griffin, a former aide to top White House official Karl Rove. (Read documents on Griffin's nomination - pdf)

"We have a senator problem," noted Monica Goodling, a Justice Department liaison to the White House, over Cummins' pending dismissal. The August 18 e-mail also suggested a possible "confirmation issue with Griffin."

Word of Cummins' pending departure and Griffin's nomination was leaked to an Arkansas newspaper in late August, one memo notes.

About a month later, on September 13, Sampson placed Little Rock-based Cummins on the list of U.S. attorneys "in the process of being pushed out."

Miers thanked him four days later, but noted she had not had much time to focus on the issue. "Things have been crazy," she wrote.

Two months later there still was no decision from the White House on the final "cut" list. In a November 15 memo, Sampson urged Miers to reach out to Rove's office as a "pre-execution necessity I would recommend."

Messages anticipate 'political upheaval'

He added, "I am concerned that to execute this plan properly we must all be on the same page and be steeled to withstand any political upheaval that might result. ... If we start caving to complaining U.S. attorneys or senators then we shouldn't do it -- it'll be more trouble than it is worth."

Three weeks went by and Sampson was getting anxious waiting for the "green light" from the White House counsel's office.

Finally, on December 4, William Kelley, Miers' deputy, gave the word: "We're a go for the U.S. attorney plan. WHU leg (office of legislative affairs), political (office), and communications have signed off and acknowledged that we have to be committed to following through once the pressure comes." (Read how officials dealt with the reaction - pdf)

A detailed memo outlined each U.S. attorney to be let go, and the names of key senators or party officials from the prosecutors' home states who would be informed.

Talking points were suggested to help "prepare to withstand political upheaval." Such points included that "the administration made the determination to seek the resignations (not any specific person at the White House or the Department of Justice)."

The White House says President Bush never directed the Justice Department to fire a U.S. attorney, and that concerns about the performance of certain prosecutors were appropriate.

As Sampson suggested back in January 2006, Chiara, Cummins and Lam were among the eight fired prosecutors. In Arkansas, Cummins' post was filled by former Rove aide Griffin on an interim basis, but he said last month he would not seek Senate confirmation because of the "partisan circus" surrounding the firings.

The reaction on Capitol Hill to the dismissals was mixed. Deputy White House Counsel Kelley told Sampson and Miers in a December 8 memo of "disgruntlement" in Nevada. Republican Sen. John Ensign "is very unhappy about the decision" to let U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden go, he said.

But in New Mexico, Kelley reported, Republican Sen. Pete Domenici was "happy as a clam" and offered to quickly provide names of possible replacements.


Kyle Sampson has resigned as chief of staff to the U.S. attorney general, amid furor over the firings.



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