WASHINGTON—Lawmakers investigating last year's firings of eight U.S. attorneys took aim at the White House on Wednesday, subpoenaing the Justice Department for all related e-mails of President Bush's political adviser Karl Rove.
The development is one of several that could increase pressure on the Bush administration to explain how involved White House officials were in the unusual order to fire several of the president's top prosecutors and why.
Democrats are investigating whether the firings were improperly motivated by Republicans' concerns about corruption probes or Democratic voter turnout in battleground election states.
Meanwhile, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who resigned in August 2005, is scheduled to testify Thursday before a House judiciary subcommittee. Congressional aides said he could challenge the Justice Department's assertions about performance problems among some of the ousted U.S. attorneys.
The same House panel on Wednesday released damaging new written responses from six of the ousted U.S. attorneys who earlier had testified publicly.
In them, the former prosecutors elaborated on their assessments that the firings were politically motivated.
In one statement, Carol Lam, the former U.S. attorney in San Diego, wrote that Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty declined to respond to her questions about her removal because he didn't want to give her an "answer that `would lead' me down the wrong route."
McNulty's chief of staff, Michael Elston, also told her that she might be replaced by a Justice Department official who wasn't from her office, she wrote. The candidate, whose name Elston didn't reveal, wasn't expected to go through the regular selection process in California.
Former Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins, who was ousted to make way for a former Rove protege, Tim Griffin, wrote that Elston told him that the Justice Department never intended to use a change in federal law to circumvent Senate confirmation, although that "might have been the White House's plan."
As a result, Cummins told the House panel, "this indicated to me that my removal had been dictated entirely by the White House," a contention the White House and Justice Department have denied.
Cummins, former Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton and former Washington U.S. Attorney John McKay also accused Elston of calling them to intimidate them into not talking about their firings.
Charlton described the Elston call as "a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the attorney general's."
Elston has denied trying to bully any of the prosecutors.
Also on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators instructed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to turn over a confidential March 2006 order that gave Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and former White House liaison Monica Goodling broad new powers to hire and fire political appointees.
The order, first leaked to the National Journal, hasn't been supplied to Congress by the Justice Department. The letter to Gonzales asks that he turn over the order and related documents.
The Justice Department's inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility, meanwhile, said Wednesday that they were investigating whether Goodling considered applicants' political affiliations in filling career positions, including assistant U.S. attorneys, which would violate federal law and department policy.
The decision by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to subpoena the Rove e-mails suggests lawmakers are running out of patience with the White House and may be moving closer to subpoenaing Rove directly, which could trigger a court battle.
"We not only need his documents, we also need his testimony," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the panel.
Leahy said he took the step only to secure the e-mails after Gonzales twice declined to turn them over voluntarily. The subpoena gives Gonzales a May 15 deadline. If he doesn't comply, Leahy said, he'll be asked to appear before the panel to answer questions.
Wednesday's subpoena seeks any relevant e-mails in the Justice Department's custody sent from White House or Republican National Committee accounts or any other e-mail account.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said, "We have received the subpoena and are reviewing it," but Boyd didn't say whether the department would comply.
Neither the White House nor the Republican National Committee issued an immediate response.
Lawmakers know Rove received some communications about the U.S. attorneys on non-White House e-mail accounts because a Republican Party e-mail address of his was included on a recipient list that was among 6,000 pages of documents the Justice Department already has turned over to Congress.
But the White House and the Republican National Committee have said they think that some of his e-mails are lost.
Meanwhile, the White House has declined to make Rove or other top officials available to testify or to answer questions privately with a transcript. President Bush has reserved the right to claim executive privilege, which would keep communications with his advisers off limits.
And the White House also has instructed the Republican National Committee not to give Congress any Rove e-mails unless cleared by the White House.
In another development, a longtime career Justice Department official has told congressional investigators during closed-door testimony that he was "stunned" to learn about what he considered to be heavy White House involvement in the firings, a congressional aide told McClatchy Newspapers. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the transcripts of the interview haven't been made public.
The testimony by David Margolis, a Justice Department employee of 40 years, suggests that career officials weren't fully informed of the firing strategy they were helping to execute, as administration officials have said.
While Margolis told investigators he initially believed the White House had been minimally involved in the firings, he said he learned through Sampson on March 8 that Rove aides and the White House counsel's office had been in regular contact with top Gonzales aides over the firings.
Margolis declined comment, referring calls to a Justice Department spokesman, who also declined comment.