Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) praised today’s move by Attorney General Michael Mukasey to restore safeguards against political interference at the Department of Justice. Earlier this year, Whitehouse, a former U.S. Attorney, closely questioned former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about Bush administration changes to a policy regarding communications between the White House and the Department of Justice that significantly expanded the number of officials who could discuss pending cases and investigations.
“Today’s new policy is a clear, unmistakable and welcome repudiation of the Gonzales era, and this change takes a significant step towards restoring Americans’ confidence in the integrity of our justice system,” Whitehouse said. “I’m encouraged that Attorney General Mukasey has honored his commitment to begin restoring the firewall against White House politicization at the Department.”
In the Clinton administration, a total of only seven people at the White House and the Justice Department were permitted to initiate discussions of ongoing cases or investigations, including the President, Vice President, and Attorney General. During the tenure of Attorney General John Ashcroft, that policy changed to authorize more than 40 people at the Department and more than 400 people in the White House to initiate such conversations, opening up unrestricted channels for political interference.
Whitehouse, a former U.S. Attorney, questioned Attorney General Gonzales about the revised policy during two Judiciary Committee hearings. When pressed, Gonzales said: “I would be concerned about inappropriate access to ongoing investigations … if that's encouraged by this kind of memorandum, I think it's something that we ought to rethink.”
Whitehouse specifically expressed concern that Gonzales himself signed a 2006 memorandum further expanding the authority to discuss cases to over 900 people in the executive branch, explicitly including the chief of staff and counsel to the Vice President.
“What on Earth business does the Office of the Vice President have in the internal workings of the Department of Justice with respect to criminal investigations, civil investigations, ongoing matters?” Whitehouse asked Gonzales during a July 24 Judiciary Committee hearing. “As a general matter, I would say that that's a good question,” the Attorney General responded. The new policy excludes the Office of the Vice President from discussions about pending cases.
In September, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed legislation Whitehouse introduced that would require the Department of Justice and the White House to notify Congress which officials, beyond the seven authorized by the Clinton-era rules, have engaged in such discussions (S. 1845).
“I’m very grateful to Chairman Pat Leahy, and to my colleagues Senator Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, for the leading role each of them has played in our investigation into the Bush administration’s unprecedented firing of several U.S. Attorneys earlier last year, and for their support of my participation as a freshman senator. This change in policy shows that the responsible use of Congress’s powers of oversight can make a significant difference in our government,” Whitehouse said.
Copies of charts illustrating the change in policies, which Whitehouse used during this summer’s Judiciary Committee hearings, are available upon request.