March 25, 2007
When Will Fredo Get Whacked?
By FRANK RICH
PRESIDENT BUSH wants to keep everything that happens in his White House secret, but when it comes to his own emotions, he’s as transparent as a teenager on MySpace.
On Monday morning he observed the Iraq war’s fourth anniversary with a sullen stay-the-course peroration so perfunctory he seemed to sleepwalk through its smorgasbord of recycled half-truths (Iraqi leaders are “beginning to meet the benchmarks”) and boilerplate (“There will be good days, and there will be bad days”). But at a press conference the next day to defend his attorney general, the president was back in the saddle, guns blazing, Mr. Bring ’Em On reborn. He vowed to vanquish his Democratic antagonists much as he once, so very long ago, pledged to make short work of insurgents in Iraq.
The Jekyll-and-Hyde contrast between these two performances couldn’t be a more dramatic indicator of Mr. Bush’s priorities in his presidency’s endgame. His passion for protecting his power and his courtiers far exceeds his passion for protecting the troops he’s pouring into Iraq’s civil war. But why go to the mat for Alberto Gonzales? Even Bush loyalists have rarely shown respect for this crony whom the president saddled with the nickname Fredo; they revolted when Mr. Bush flirted with appointing him to the Supreme Court and shun him now. The attorney general’s alleged infraction — misrepresenting a Justice Department purge of eight United States attorneys, all political appointees, for political reasons — seems an easy-to-settle kerfuffle next to his infamous 2002 memo dismissing the Geneva Conventions’ strictures on torture as “quaint” and “obsolete.”
That’s why the president’s wild overreaction is revealing. So far his truculence has been largely attributed to his slavish loyalty to his White House supplicants, his ideological belief in unilateral executive-branch power and, as always, his need to shield the Machiavellian machinations of Karl Rove (who installed a protégé in place of one of the fired attorneys). But the fierceness of Mr. Bush’s response — to the ludicrous extreme of forbidding transcripts of Congressional questioning of White House personnel — indicates there is far more fire to go with all the Beltway smoke.
Mr. Gonzales may be a nonentity, but he’s a nonentity like Zelig. He’s been present at every dubious legal crossroads in Mr. Bush’s career. That conjoined history began in 1996, when Mr. Bush, then governor of Texas, was summoned for jury duty in Austin. To popular acclaim, he announced he was glad to lend his “average guy” perspective to a drunken driving trial. But there was one hitch. On the juror questionnaire, he left blank a required section asking, “Have you ever been accused, or a complainant, or a witness in a criminal case?”
A likely explanation for that omission, unknown to the public at the time, was that Mr. Bush had been charged with disorderly conduct in 1968 and drunken driving in 1976. Enter Mr. Gonzales. As the story is told in “The President’s Counselor,” a nonpartisan biography by the Texas journalist Bill Minutaglio, Mr. Gonzales met with the judge presiding over the trial in his chambers (a meeting Mr. Gonzales would years later claim to have “no recollection” of requesting) and saved his client from jury duty. Mr. Minutaglio likens the scene to “The Godfather” — casting Mr. Gonzales not as the feckless Fredo, however, but as the “discreet ‘fixer’ attorney,” Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen.
Mr. Gonzales’s career has been laced with such narrow escapes for both him and Mr. Bush. As a partner at the Houston law firm of Vinson & Elkins, Mr. Gonzales had worked for Enron until 1994. After Enron imploded in 2001, reporters wanted to know whether Ken Lay’s pals in the Bush hierarchy had received a heads up about the company’s pending demise before its unfortunate shareholders were left holding the bag. The White House said that Mr. Gonzales had been out of the Enron loop “to the best of his recollection.” This month Murray Waas of The National Journal uncovered a more recent close shave: Just as Justice Department investigators were about to examine “documents that might have shed light on Gonzales’s role” in the administration’s extralegal domestic wiretapping program last year, Mr. Bush shut down the investigation.
It was Mr. Gonzales as well who threw up roadblocks when the 9/11 Commission sought documents and testimony from the White House about the fateful summer of 2001. Less widely known is Mr. Gonzales’s curious behavior in the C.I.A. leak case while he was still White House counsel. When the Justice Department officially notified him on the evening of Sept. 29, 2003, that it was opening an investigation into the outing of Valerie Wilson, he immediately informed Andrew Card, Mr. Bush’s chief of staff. But Mr. Gonzales waited another 12 hours to officially notify the president and inform White House employees to preserve all materials relevant to the investigation. As Chuck Schumer said after this maneuver became known, “Every good prosecutor knows that any delay could give a culprit time to destroy the evidence.”
Now that 12-hour delay has been matched by the 18-day gap in the Justice Department e-mails turned over to Congress in the dispute over the attorney purge. And we’re being told by Tony Snow that Mr. Bush has “no recollection” of hearing anything about the firings. But even these literal echoes of Watergate cannot obliterate the contours of the story this White House wants to hide.
Do not be distracted by the apples and oranges among the fired attorneys. Perhaps a couple of their forced resignations were routine. But in other instances, incriminating evidence coalesces around a familiar administration motive: its desperate desire to cover up the corruption that soiled what was supposed to be this White House’s greatest asset, its protection of the nation’s security. This was the motive that drove the White House to vilify Joseph Wilson when he challenged fraudulent prewar intelligence about Saddam’s W.M.D. The e-mails in the attorney flap released so far suggest that this same motive may have driven the Justice Department to try mounting a similar strike at Patrick Fitzgerald, the United States attorney charged with investigating the Wilson leak.
In March 2005, while preparing for the firings, Mr. Gonzales’s now-jettisoned chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, produced a chart rating all 93 United States attorneys nationwide. Mr. Fitzgerald, widely admired as one of the nation’s best prosecutors (most famously of terrorists), was somehow slapped with the designation “not distinguished.” Two others given that same rating were fired. You have to wonder if Mr. Fitzgerald was spared because someone in a high place belatedly calculated the political firestorm that would engulf the White House had this prosecutor been part of a Saturday night massacre in the middle of the Wilson inquiry.
Another canned attorney to track because of her scrutiny of Bush administration national security scandals is Carol Lam. She was fired from her post in San Diego after her successful prosecution of Representative Duke Cunningham, the California Republican who took $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Mr. Rove has publicly suggested that Ms. Lam got the ax because “she would not commit resources to prosecute immigration offenses.” That’s false. Last August an assistant attorney general praised her for doubling her immigration prosecutions; last week USA Today crunched the statistics and found that she ranked seventh among her 93 peers in successful prosecutions for 2006, with immigration violations accounting for the largest single crime category prosecuted during her tenure.
To see what Mr. Rove might be trying to cover up, look instead at what Ms. Lam was up to in May, just as the Justice Department e-mails indicate she was being earmarked for removal. Building on the Cunningham case, she was closing in on Dusty Foggo, the C.I.A.’s No. 3 official and the director of its daily operations. Mr. Foggo had been installed in this high intelligence position by Mr. Bush’s handpicked successor to George Tenet as C.I.A. director, Porter Goss.
Ms. Lam’s pursuit sped Mr. Foggo’s abrupt resignation; Mr. Goss was out too after serving less than two years. Nine months later — just as Ms. Lam stepped down from her job in February — Mr. Foggo and a defense contractor who raised more than $100,000 for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign were indicted by a grand jury on 11 counts of conspiracy and money laundering in what The Washington Post called “one of the first criminal cases to reach into the C.I.A.’s clandestine operations in Europe and the Middle East.” Because the allegations include the compromising of classified information that remains classified, we don’t know the full extent of the damage to an agency and a nation at war.
Not yet anyway. “I’m not going to resign,” Mr. Gonzales asserted last week as he played the minority card, rounding up Hispanic supporters to cheer his protestations of innocence. “I’m going to stay focused on protecting our kids.” Actually, he’s going to stay focused on protecting the president. Once he can no longer be useful in that role, it’s a sure thing that like Scooter before him, Fredo will be tossed overboard.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company