Outside editorial: The White House roadblock crew

Posted: Monday, October 06, 2008

Buried in a lengthy report about the firing of nine U.S. attorneys is the disturbing explanation of how the White House blocked Justice Department investigators from obtaining pertinent documents.

The White House Counsel's Office, in declining to turn over certain documents to the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), argued that President Bush had a "very strong confidentiality interest" in keeping private - even from the administration's top law enforcement agency - information contained in those documents.

The president, however, did not have concerns about sharing them with certain officials at Justice. For example, in 2007 the White House passed along to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) copies of a memorandum that included detailed descriptions of the involvement of administration officials in the dismissals; the OLC, according to the report, said that it had been ordered by the White House not to turn over the document to OIG/OPR investigators. The administration later relented but submitted a copy so heavily redacted that investigators said it was virtually useless. Investigators concluded that the administration's stonewalling "hindered" its investigation.

The report also lays out the reasons - or lack thereof - offered by former administration officials Karl Rove and Harriet Miers for refusing to speak with the investigators. Rove simply declined to submit to an interview - despite the fact that the White House Counsel's Office encouraged current and former officials to do so. Unlike Miers, he offered no explanation.

The report explains that Miers' lawyer was worried that if she spoke with Justice investigators she could undermine the claim of executive privilege invoked by the president to prevent her testimony in a parallel congressional inquiry. It is not clear whether the claim of executive privilege would have been damaged; the Justice Department, after all, is part of the executive branch.

But Miers apparently felt that she would have been in a politically untenable position when arguing against cooperation with Congress, especially because it's likely that her testimony to the Justice Department would have been part of a public report.

These considerations should not be obstacles for Nora Dannehy, the acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut, who was recently appointed special prosecutor for the matter.

Dannehy comes to her assignment with considerably more legal muscle than the Justice Department investigators have; for one, she has the power to summon current and former administration officials - a power Justice lawyers did not enjoy.

Rove and Miers should be at the top of her list. Dannehy must also be unflinching in her examination of whether current or former administration officials obstructed justice or made false statements.

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