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E-mails show confusion over why U.S. attorneys were sacked

WASHINGTON—Internal Justice Department e-mails written before the firings of eight U.S. attorneys and during the turmoil that followed continue to raise questions about the real reasons for their ousters.

The Justice Department initially said that the firings were for "performance-related" problems. Officials have since backed away from that characterization, and e-mails and documents released in connection with a congressional inquiry into the firings point to differing and sometimes conflicting causes for the terminations.

For example, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who approved the firing of one of the prosecutors, said in an e-mail that he hadn't read the attorney's job review to assess his competence. In other messages, officials defended and sometimes praised other prosecutors they were preparing to dump.

The documents and e-mails also show Justice officials in a defensive posture as they braced for a backlash about the firings, which were planned as far back as spring 2005. The plan gained momentum the day of the 2006 congressional elections.

To tamp down controversy, McNulty and other high-ranking officials carefully crafted a response to possible criticism of the firings and secured the approval of the firings from then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers, according to the documents.

Less than a month before the firings, Miers said she would consider whether the president should be brought in. Three days before the firings, the White House signed off the plan, although White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said this week that "there's no indication it ever was" brought to President Bush's attention.

On Tuesday, in a brief but strong defense of embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Bush said there was no indication that there was anything "improper" about the firings.

But the documents point to conflicting statements administration officials made in the months before the firings.

One internal analysis characterized U.S. Attorney John McKay of Seattle as demonstrating "a pattern of poor judgment and . . . temperament" in pushing for department policy changes. But it also said that McKay "is an effective, well-regarded and capable leader" of his office and the district's law enforcement community.

Administration officials cited U.S. Attorney Carol Lam's handling of immigrations cases in San Diego as one reason for her removal. In one e-mail, a Justice Department official asked whether she'd been "woodshedded" on immigration. Yet, in another e-mail, an official responded that he didn't think she had been, raising questions about how important the issue was to administration officials.

The e-mails showed that some officials weren't clear on the reasons for at least one of the firings.

McNulty acknowledged to Justice Department officials two days before six of the firings that he still felt "a little skittish" because he hadn't looked at the job evaluations of Daniel Bogden, the U.S. attorney in Nevada, before his termination.

Some U.S. attorneys questioned the administration's characterization of the firings.

U.S. Attorney Margaret Chiara of Michigan asked in an e-mail to be told the reason for her ouster once the "election dust settles." Later, she complained in a Feb. 1, 2007, e-mail to McNulty that "everyone who knows about my required resignation ... is astonished that I am being asked to leave."

After Justice Department officials began telling the media that the fired prosecutors failed to meet performance expectations, Chiara said in an e-mail that "this makes me so sad. Why have I been asked to resign? The real reason, especially if true, would be a lot easier to deal with."

Once the firings occurred, the predicted controversy ensued.

In a Feb. 1, 2007, memo, Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' then chief of staff, weighed how to deal with escalating congressional inquiries into the firings. Sampson informed colleagues that ousted Arkansas U.S. Attorney H.E. "Bud" Cummins had called to say he was asked to testify before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. "I don't think he should," Sampson wrote. "How would he answer: `Did you resign voluntarily? Were you told why you were being asked to resign? Who told you? When did they tell you?'"

Sampson wondered what Cummins would say if asked whether he'd talked with Tim Griffin, the former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove who replaced him in Arkansas. What would he say, Sampson wrote, if asked about being appointed by the attorney general under a legal loophole slipped into law last year "and avoiding Senate confirmation?"

Other e-mails showed that while Justice Department officials were at times irritated with McKay of Seattle, they had no major issues with his performance. Department officials had become frustrated with McKay over his continual lobbying for the nationwide use of a criminal tracking system that had received rave reviews in some law enforcement quarters.

The officials also were upset when McKay wrote a letter to several law enforcement agencies complaining about federal budgets cuts that he said were affecting the number of criminal prosecutions in his district. McKay was in Europe when the letter became public.

"Even when he is in Ireland he causes problems," one Justice Department official wrote.

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(McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Ron Hutcheson, Les Blumenthal and Margaret Talev contributed to this report.)

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