This is a rush transcript from "The Journal Editorial Report," March 17, 2007.
PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on "The Journal Editorial Report," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is under fire for what Democrats are calling a political purge. But how unprecedented was the dismissal of those eight U.S. attorneys? Just ask Hillary Clinton.
And from A to Z, Al Qaeda's number 3 confesses to planning the 9/11 attacks and dozens more. What impact will Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's confession have on the debate over enemy combatants?
Our panel weighs in, after these headlines.
GIGOT: Welcome to "The Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.
Fallout continued this week over the Justice Department's firing of eight U.S. attorneys, with Democrats and some Republicans calling for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Joseph di Genova is a former United States attorney for the District of Columbia. He joins me now from Washington.
Joe di Genova, welcome to the program. Good to have you here.
JOE DIGENOVA, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Nice to be here, Paul.
GIGOT: U.S. attorneys are political appointees. They're prosecutors appointed by the president to serve at his pleasure. So presumably, the president can dismiss them. What did the administration do wrong in this case?
DIGENOVA: They have the right to fire them. They don't have a right to smear them or to give inconsistent and inaccurate answers to Congress about why they were removed.
I think the real crime here is not a violation of Title 18. The crime is the clumsiness and the hand-handedness with which this was handled by the Justice Department.
I think that's really what — this was handled so unprofessionally that now they're — this would have been fine if the Republicans were still in control of the Congress. But they are not any more. The power has changed.
And as a result, Democrats are in control. They can ask tough questions. And subpoenas start to fly. That's why you have to have adults in charge at the White House counsel's office and at the Justice Department.
GIGOT: So there's nothing wrong, in your view, when the president of the United States, who has won reelection as the president did in 2004 and in 2005 — they had some discussions in the White House and the Justice Department about replacing officials. There's nothing wrong with the president saying, "You know, I want to replace a half dozen 10, 12, even 20 or more U.S. attorneys?
DIGENOVA: Absolutely nothing legally wrong with that at all. Absolutely none.
GIGOT: So is it just a political issue then, that you have to be more worried...
DIGENOVA: I think, at this point, it is.
DIGENOVA: I think it is a political issue now. That's how it's being played out.
But I'll tell you something else that is going to happen. And it is starting to evolve here in D.C. This is the first phase for the Democrats. It's to look at the Justice Department.
The next phase is going to be to look at the U.S. attorney's offices specifically to see if the U.S. attorneys who were kept were bringing politically motivated prosecutions against Democrats in their districts. And they're already lining up specific districts to look at. That's the danger here for the Republicans.
GIGOT: But the U.S. attorneys around the country, in the last couple of years, have brought a lot of cases against Republicans in Congress, some of whom are no longer in Congress. They are in jail.
GIGOT: So prosecutors look at Democrats and Republicans.
Is there any evidence that you have seen to backup what you just suggested?
DIGENOVA: Yes, actually in a couple districts, particularly in Delaware, there have been tremendous problems up there where the partisanship and the political motivations of some cases has been written about and talked about. And some of the local FBI agents have been upset about the way things have been handled. And that stuff is making its way through the system.
But the point is, this whole thing could have been handled entirely differently if there had been a competent group of people there managing the Justice Department.
I think the lack of experience of people, their inability to understand the power that they had at their disposal — here's the president at war in Afghanistan and in Iraq, dealing with problems with the FBI. He did not need this.
But I see this as a political problem, Paul, not a legal one. I agree with you 100 percent on that.
But that's the problem for the president. Politics is reality now. As he is in the end of his second term, his power is waning. He's under attack. He didn't need this.
And the attorney general should had made sure this didn't happen.
GIGOT: How should the process have worked if the president said — thought — "you know, there was a prosecutor in Los Angeles" — as I think in this case, there was — "who wasn't prosecuting immigration cases as aggressively as I thought that prosecutor should been doing." That's legitimate difference. The president sets the policy. He is elected and accountable. How should the process have worked to dismiss someone like that?
DIGENOVA: Well, I think what you do is, you have to start talking to people on an individual basis. It may have been actually better to have done it the way Harriet Miers suggested, which is to send everyone letters of resignation. And then accept the ones you wanted, and reject the ones that you didn't want to accept.
Once you line up a group of people you want to remove for various reasons, which you have the legal right to do, you have to decide how you are going to handle that.
And what they didn't do here was they didn't have a plan. They didn't have explanations so that, when the issue arose and there were complaints, they gave out inconsistent and inaccurate information. And that, of course is blood in the water. And once the shark starts circling, then inquiries happen.
And, of course, then what do you get? You get the inevitable disclosure of e-mails — the Kyle Sampson e-mails, who was the chief of staff for the attorney general, Gonzales. Those are so juvenile that they are embarrassing for the department. And that is now what is causing this to erupt the way it is. It's an e-mail scandal now.
But the legalities aside, are now irrelevant.
GIGOT: Quickly, do you think that Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, and his deputy, Paul McNulty, can continue in office and to serve the president in his interests?
DIGENOVA: I think they can for the moment. But as this plays out, and it gets worse or — it depends upon how much worse it gets.
At a certain point, the president has to think about the rest of his term, and whether or not Mr. McNulty and the attorney general can have credibility on the Hill when they go to testify. And if that can't happen, then the White House has to make certain decisions about whether or not they can take it for two more years.
GIGOT: All right, Joe diGenova, thank you for that.
DIGENOVA: Thank you, Paul.
GIGOT: Much more on the fallout when we come back.
Some Republican Senators have already called for the attorney general's ouster. Will others follow suit?
Plus, graphic details of attacks both planned and executed. Twenty- six pages that give us a rare glimpse into the nature of Al Qaeda?
What we can learn from the confession of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, when "The Journal Editorial Report" continues.
SEN. JOHN SUNUNU (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: It's essential that the United States have an attorney general that can support the president on policy, that can work well with Congress and that has credibility and confidence of the American people. And Alberto Gonzales can't fill that role right now.
GIGOT: Senator John Sununu, the first Republican to call for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign.
We are back with more on the political fallout from the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and Deputy Editor Dan Henninger, columnist and Editorial Board Member Kim Strassel, and opinionjournal.com columnist John Fund.
John, before we get into the politics, let's deal with the substance of this just a little more. Is there any evidence at all that the White House, making these dismissals, was attempting to protect some political crony or stop a prosecution at all?
JOHN FUND, COLUMNIST, WSJ OPINIONJOURNAL.COM: No, so far not. Although, as Joseph diGenova indicated, the Democrats will certainly be trawling for that evidence in the future.
GIGOT: OK. What about the politics of this? How damaging is it for the...?
FUND: Very damaging. It's filing up the headlines and the news space.
It's bizarre though, because the previous administration, the Clinton administration, not only fired 93 republican-appointed U.S. attorneys on one day — they called it the March Massacre back in 1993 — and some of that was suspected in order to cover up for political cronies who were under investigation.
During the Clinton administration they also fired, removed or replaced 30 democratic appointees to U.S. attorneys slots, very similar to this, which is only eight.
GIGOT: So is this all just the fact that the Democrats took power last November, Dan? And now, they're going to make an issue of these things?
Could the president have even — could he have replaced any of these attorneys this year without political ramifications?
DAN HENNINGER, WSJ COLUMNIST AND DEPUTY EDITOR: He might have been able to replace them in January, just after the election. But to do it now, when the Democrats are clearly up and running and loaded for bear and blood — I mean, look at the Iraq War resolutions that are going on right now.
It was the height of incompetence to try to do something like this at this point in time.
The Democrats are prepared in Congress to run investigations as far as the eye can see. They said they were going to run these investigations.
GIGOT: What about the 1993 example that John talked about. Wasn't that in some ways even worse than this?
GIGOT: Ninety-three all at once. And that was unprecedented compared to what had happened in the Carter administration and the Reagan administration, where these attorneys were replaced gradually?
HENNINGER: The Democrats are trying to argue here that no politics should be involved in the Justice Department or the U.S. attorney's offices.
Look, Bill Clinton appointed Janet Reno, attorney general, someone he did not know. He had to have his own eyes and ears over there. He sent Webster Hubbell, a crony from Arkansas, down there to keep tabs on Janet Reno.
The Department of Justice is such a center of power that no president is going to send somebody up there who he doesn't know.
FUND: And by the way, we learned later on, of course, that Webster Hubbell went to prison for fraud and other charges. So if there was corruption in the Justice Department under Clinton, it was the man who helped remove all these U.S. attorneys in fell swoop.
GIGOT: Kim, incompetence more than evil intent?
KIM STRASSEL, WSJ COLUMNIST AND EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: Oh, definitely incompetence. And, you know, one of the really sad things here is that this has managed to take focus off the one branch of government that actually deserves a little bit of criticism for the attorney thing, which is Congress itself.
We now know that there were two New Mexico Republicans, Pete Domenici and Heather Wilson, who called a prosecutor in their state, and were leaning on them in certain prosecutions. This is not what is supposed to happen.
You know, the executive branch appoints prosecutors. And it sets the policies. But Congress is not supposed to have anything to do with how that actually happens.
But that's all been forgotten amid all the headlines now about the Bush incompetence.
FUND: And to pick up on Kim's point, Iglesias, the U.S. attorney of New Mexico who was removed, was not on the original list for removal. Then when Domenici and Wilson called to complain about his actions, his name suddenly appeared on the list for removal. That is one that really, really does deserve scrutiny.
GIGOT: But Congress doesn't like to look into congressional abuses.
FUND: There are never any congressional hearings on Congress. That's for sure.
GIGOT: OK, John. All right.
Coming up, what impact will the chilling confession of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have on the debate over enemy combatants? Our panel weighs in when the "Journal Editorial Report" continues.
GIGOT: In a transcript released this week by the Pentagon, Al Qaeda's suspected number three, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, admitted responsibilities for the attacks of September 11, as well as a string of other atrocities, including the bombing of a nightclub in Bali and the beheading of "Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl.
He also claimed to be behind plots to assassinate Pope John Paul II and former President Bill Clinton, as well as planned attacks against Chicago's Sears Tower and London's Big Ben.
Hearings began last week to determining whether Mohammed and 13 other high-value detainees at Guantanamo should be declared enemy combatants and prosecuted by military tribunals.
Boy, Dan, that was quite a show KSM put on in Guantanamo. He was almost boastful. What did his testimony tell us about Al Qaeda and its ambitions?
HENNINGER: I think what it told us, based on the list that you have just read, is that it is Al Qaeda's official stated policy and strategy to simply murder as many innocent civilians all over the world as they can. And people have to come to grips with the reality of that.
Here is one of the things KSM said: "Same language you use, I use. That is why the language of any war in the world is killing."
FUND: That's sophistry.
HENNINGER: They are simply about killing people. And you have to — we're in a war with the people, whose goal in life is to go into cities and blow up buildings and kill the people inside them.
FUND: And one side that hasn't been appreciative enough is this, it's been now almost 6 years since 9/11. And we have never had an attack on the home land.
I can assure you, the week after 9/11, everyone thought that we were going to experience that kind of attack. We've done something right. We have thwarted these Al Qaeda plots.
But now we know what they were planning. And that's why we had to take all of those measures that we did take, including the Guantanamo detainees.
GIGOT: I want to put up one other quote. We have it. It's about the biological weapons, that he says — admits to being involved.
He said, "I was directly in charge of managing and following up on the cell for the production of biological weapons, such as anthrax and others, and following up on dirty bomb operations on American soil."
Kim, that's WMD, Al Qaeda's ambitions to have WMDs.
STRASSEL: Yes, absolutely. I mean, this is a very valuable thing to add to this debate at the moment, just as Democrats are now in control in Congress, and we are going to be having all kinds of discussions, yet again, about wire tapping, domestic wire tapping, or surveillance program, and detainees and all of the measures that the administration has taken to make sure, as John said, there won't be another attack.
GIGOT: Well, this debate over enemy combatants and how you treat them has become a big part of this. Because, some people are saying, "Well, maybe he made this up. Or maybe it was done under coerced conditions, under torture."
FUND: Even if half of it is true, it's astonishing.
GIGOT: Right. But KSM himself, he kind of embraced the enemy combatant label and said, "Yes, I'm your enemy."
And it suggests, to me at least, that this is not a guy you want to put through the criminal justice system and then, maybe, give him a chance to make a big public show of what he has done.
STRASSEL: Absolutely not. And let's remember, this was a statement he came up with himself. I mean, these were not facts that were put forward. I mean, he admitted to this stuff himself. This was not him — actually this was not something coming out after supposedly he had aggressive tactics used against him.
HENNNINGER: Well, politically, this is an argument and a debate we should have now. I would hope that some — say, the Republican presidential candidates, like Rudy Giuliani, would put the question directly to Democrats, "What is your policy going to be about the interrogation of suspects like this? Are you going to press them vigorously or are you going to pull back and decide that they have to go through the American justice system?" And let voters decide which side they want to choose.
FUND: I just wish I could agree with Kim, that we all have an agreed set of facts here.
If you look at the left-wing blogs, if you look at Rosie O'Donnell, who basically said we tortured this fellow. He made all of this stuff up. There are a lot of people who basically want to disbelieve everything the administration says, believe America is at fault and basically dismiss the Al Qaeda threat.
You can't have a rational political argument with such people, because we don't agree on the same reality.
GIGOT: But one of the things that's clear is that — and KSM says it. Al Qaeda declared war on the United States in 1998.
FUND: And that is a fact.
GIGOT: And that was when George Bush was just a governor.
What do you think about this political impact of this, Kim? Is this going to affect the debate on enemy combatants?
STRASSEL: Well, I mean, I think you are — yes, it definitely is. I mean, what you have here is a man who has come out, admitted these things.
We now know it's a great example of what the consequences would be of actually putting him in the criminal justice system, the ridiculousness of all of that. But also just in terms too of — look, I mean...
GIGOT: But he will face a military tribunal. Do you think he will get the death sentence?
STRASSEL: Oh, I'm sure he probably will.
FUND: You know, all of...
GIGOT: John, I'm sorry. We've got to go.
All right, we have to take one more break. When we come back, our "Hits and Misses" of the week.
GIGOT: Winners and losers, picks and pans, "Hits and Misses," it's our way of calling attention to the best and the worst of the week.
Item one, the University of Illinois gives up the fight over its controversial mascot — Dan?
HENNINGER: I'm doing a miss this week, in solidarity with our colleague, Steve Moore, who viewers may recall, came on the show about a year ago. Steve is a graduate of University of Illinois and complained about the school's bending under pressure to get rid of Chief Illiniwek, who's the schools mascot, an Indian chief.
Well, this week, the trustees of Illinois voted, under pressure from the NCAA, to ban Chief Illiniwek.
Now, the fact is, it actually — the chief honors the tradition of the Algonquian Indians. It goes back 70 years.
And the idea that these schools would sort of cave under pressure like this is just Big Brotherism and the Thought Police run amok. It's a sad day for the University of Illinois.
GIGOT: All right, Dan, thanks.
Next, a hit to the judge in the case against former Hewlett-Packard Chair Patricia Dunn.
STRASSEL: Yes, this is a hit to the state California judge, Ray Cunningham, who seemed to understand that sometimes justice really is better served outside of the courtroom.
In this case, he dropped the charges against Patricia Dunn, who was the HP board chairman who had authorized the probe into the leaking of company secrets.
Now, it's never a good idea to hire private investigators to look into reporters.
And when that came out, you know, Hewlett-Packard was in big trouble. Ms. Dunn and others lost their jobs. And that should have been punishment enough.
But former California attorney general, Bill Lockyer, thought there might be some political mileage to this. And in an election year, he filed charges. Thankfully, the judge wasn't having anything of it. And he dropped the charges. And we can maybe put this aside, put it to rest.
GIGOT: All right. Thanks, Kim.
Finally, the democratic Congress is promising to cut budget earmarks. But are they cutting something else as well, John? Tell us.
FUND: This isn't a miss. This is a complete surrender to the big spenders.
Now, during the 12 years Republicans controlled Congress, they grew earmarks a lot. But at least they had the intellectual honesty to allow the Congressional Research Service, which works for Congress, to count the earmarks, quantify them, keep score so we knew how many were exploding into the budget.
Well, just last month, the Congressional Research Service decided, we're not going to count earmarks any more. We have decided, now that the Democrats are taking control, mysteriously, we are going to refuse requests from members of Congress, anti-pork barrelers, like Senator Tom Coburn and Senator Jim DeMint, to count earmarks.
Well, Senators DeMint and Coburn are very upset with this. I think there's going to be a lot of accountability here. And there are going to be questions. Was political pressure put on the Congressional Research Service to protect the Appropriations Committees and their spending?
GIGOT: All right, John, thanks.
Thanks to Dan Henninger, Kim Strassel and John Fund.
I'm Paul Gigot. Thanks to all of you for watching. And we hope to see you right here next week.
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