During the Clinton administration, there were just four people in the White House — the President, the Vice President, the White House Counsel, and the Deputy White House Counsel — who could participate in discussions with the Justice Department “regarding pending criminal investigations and criminal cases.” There were just three Justice Department officials authorized to talk with the White House. This arrangement was intended restrict political interference in the administration of justice.
Yesterday in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that it was important that the Justice Department “be independent from” the White House. But as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) pointed out, the firewalls that had existed during the Clinton administration have been ripped down. In the Bush administration, the rules have been rewritten so that 417 White House officials and 30 Justice Department officials are eligible to have discussions about criminal cases. Watch it:
When asked to respond, Gonzales simply replied, “I do recall being concerned about that as White House counsel.”
WHITEHOUSE: Back to structure again, Attorney General Gonzales. I assume that we can agree with the proposition that in the enforcement of the laws the Department of Justice should be independent.
GONZALES: Yes, sir.
WHITEHOUSE: Can we also agree that one of the institutions of government that the Department of Justice needs to be independent from, in the enforcement of the laws is the White House?
GONZALES: No question about it, Senator. If you’re talking about prosecuting someone in the White House, yes, we should be independent from them when we’re making those kind of decisions.
WHITEHOUSE: And, indeed, over long history there have been concerns about influence from the White House to the Department of Justice, and people, indeed members of this committee, have expressed concern about the White House-Justice connection over many years. Is that not also correct?
GONZALES: I think that’s a legitimate concern. I think that’s very important. I think it’s one of the reasons, for example, that Attorney General Ashcroft recused himself in connection with the Plame investigation.
WHITEHOUSE: The documents that I have given you are two letters. One is from Attorney General Reno to Lloyd Cutler, the special counsel of the president, dated September 29th, 1994. It lays out the policy for contacts between the White House and the Department of Justice in the Clinton administration.
And to give credit where credit is due, it’s my understanding that the distinguished Senator Hatch, who was then the chairman of this committee, had substantial interest in this and viewed it as a significant area of oversight. And I want to commend him for that.
And what it does — the language is behind me — it says that, with regard to initial contacts involving criminal or civil matters, they should only involve the White House counsel or deputy counsel, or the president or vice president, and the attorney general or deputy or associate attorney general, period.
The more recent memorandum, the other document that you have in front of you is from April 15th, 2002. It represents the policy of the Bush administration regarding White House-Department of Justice contacts.
And there, in the highlighted part on the front, it says that these contacts regarding pending criminal investigations and criminal cases should take place only between the office of the deputy attorney general and the office of the counsel to the president.
And then, if you flip back to the very last page, there’s sort of an exemption paragraph that exempts further the president, the vice president, the counsel to the president, national security and Homeland Security officials, staff members of the office of the attorney general as so designated, and staff of the office of the president, the office of the vice president, the office of the counsel to the president, the National Security Council and the office of Homeland Security.
So I asked my staff to take a look at what the difference was between those two in effect, and if you could.
This is in effect during the previous administration. This is the Clinton protocol. And there were four people — the president, the vice president, the deputy White House counsel and the White House counsel — who could participate in these kind of discussions about cases and matters and initiate them with the Department of Justice.
And on the Department of Justice side, the only people who were qualified to engage in those discussions were the attorney general, the deputy attorney general and the associate attorney general.
So they had narrowed very carefully the field of people who could have these discussions, which I think is a very important safeguard — to narrow that porthole, to police it. It’s almost like there’s an airlock there for those communications.
Now, here’s the result that I asked my staff to put together, if you count all the people who are eligible under the new program.
That, to me — your staff can check on exactly how accurately we’ve done it — but there are, I want to say, five — what were the numbers?
WHITEHOUSE: 417 folks in the White House who are eligible to have these contacts and…
WHITEHOUSE: About 30-some in the Department of Justice.