DoJ Rated Prosecutor 'Very Strong' --- NOT 'Undistinguished' --- But WaPo Ran With Claims from 'Unnamed Adminstration Officials' Anyway
Who Fed the Poison Pill? And Why Did it Run Unchecked?
By Margie Burns on 3/29/2007, 5:04pm PT  

*** Special to The BRAD BLOG
*** by D.C. Correspondent Margie Burns

Has the Washington Post been fooled (again) by high-level ‘leakers’? It sure looks that way.

On Tuesday, March 20, the Post ran a front-page article on the DOJ-U.S. Attorneys scandal that led off:

U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald was ranked among prosecutors who had ‘not distinguished themselves’ on a Justice Department chart sent to the White House in March 2005, when he was in the midst of leading the CIA leak investigation...

The item was sourced to unnamed “administration officials” who gave it to two WaPo reporters “yesterday.”

This juicy lede graf was followed up:

The ranking placed Fitzgerald below "strong U.S. attorneys..." but above "weak U.S. attorneys who...chafed against Administration initiatives, etc.," according to Justice documents.

The major problem with this story? It’s not true. The Department of Justice never 'ranked' U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald negatively or as 'undistinguished.' According to sworn testimony by D. Kyle Sampson, today in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Fitzgerald was rated 'very strong' internally in the DOJ.

So who fed the Post that story? And why did they run it without pinning it down first?...

As readers know, the Post article spawned headlines across the nation, all saying that the DOJ ‘ranked’ Fitzgerald “undistinguished,” “mediocre,” or “middling” or “hadn’t distinguished himself,” etc., etc. – further generating thousands of Internet hits (Google the pertinent terms) from enraged bloggers and Chicago fans of the prosecutor, and of course intensifying calls for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign (or be impeached).

Never happened.

This doesn’t take the administration off the hook (see below). Gonzales still has his problems; the ‘war on terror’ is still a massive attack on the Middle East abroad and on the middle class at home; and the Bush White House still politicizes everything it can. But to do it justice, ha ha, the DOJ itself did not generate an ‘undistinguished’ or any-of-those-other-words ‘ranking’ for the Special Counsel.

Take a closer look at graf 2 of the article, quoted above. Only when we turn to an inside page in that day’s Post, page 5, do we find out (beneath the inside headline, “Amid CIA Leak Probe, Prosecutor Was Rated as Undistinguished”) that the DOJ ‘documents’ referred to above had not been published at the time of the article[emphasis added]

The March 2005 chart ranking Fitzgerald and other prosecutors was drawn up by Gonzales aide D. Kyle Sampson and sent to then-White House counsel Harriet Miers. The reference to Fitzgerald is in a portion of the memo that Justice has refused to turn over to Congress, officials told the Washington Post, speaking on condition of anonymity because the Fitzgerald ranking has not been made public.

Uh-huh.

Today I sat in on the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing where Kyle Sampson testified. Sampson's chart has now been turned over to Congress and was handed out to journalists. I received a copy. I have the 'chart.' There IS no "reference to Fitzgerald."

UPDATE 3/30/07: Here is the chart online, among documents posted by the House Judiciary Committee. (Note: this is a 25-page set of documents. Sampson's email and chart are pages 5 through 8 of 25; scroll down somewhat.)

Now follow along closely at home: There are 93 U.S. Attorneys. Sampson's chart lists all 93 districts. Only ten of the attorneys, however, are 'ranked'; all 83 others, not ranked. Each of the ten falls into one of two categories, as Sampson says in his accompanying email and as the Judiciary Committee summarizes elsewhere:

  • Five names are bold-faced, meaning “recommend retaining” (BTW, one of these keepers is David Iglesias of New Mexico, since fired. Two other names, Bogden of Nevada and Charlton of Arizona, wd appear to be the ones 'ranked' neutrally as not distinguishing themselves either positively or negatively).
  • Three names are strikeout/crossed out, meaning “recommend removing” – Cummins of Arkansas, Margaret Chiara of Michigan, and Carol Lam of San Diego.

And where in all this is U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, you ask? – Simple: Like the 82 other USAs, he was not included in this initial (Feb. 24, 2004) set of recommendations by Sampson. 83 U.S. attorneys are simply not ranked at all. (Note: 'unranked' does not mean 'undistinguished.')

He’s not ranked. He was not placed in an “undistinguished” category or any other category, because he – like 82 other prosecutors, the overwhelming majority – was not characterized on Sampson’s list. They are not touched by it (directly, although all USAs are affected by the lack of morale at Justice – which is where that bogus Post article, and this analysis, come in).

As Sampson testified today before the Judiciary Committee, “I knew he was handling a very sensitive case, and I really didn’t want to rate him one way or another.”

Sampson –- also testifying, as mentioned, that the DOJ had rated Fitzgerald internally as “very strong” -– replied repeatedly to pointed questions from Senator Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, “I didn’t want to rate him,” “I didn’t rate him,” “I didn’t rate him one way or the other.”

Not that Sampson's off the hook either. Sampson went on to testify, under further questioning by Durbin, that he had himself raised Fitzgerald’s name in a discussion much later, “on one occasion in 2006.” As Sampson recounts in sworn testimony, he was talking to Harriet Miers (Bush Supreme Court nominee for a short time) and Bill Kelley, and “I said Patrick Fitzgerald could be added to the list.” He adds, “I immediately regretted it,” a statement he repeated several times, mostly under questioning by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who repeatedly tried to tie the item to Karl Rove.

Apparently Miers and Kelly reacted to Sampson’s remark by looking at him as though he were a bad smell.

Sampson admittedly needs the scrutiny, but so does that Post article. I am a lifetime newspaper reader; I love print; I love the press – and I cannot find in that article anywhere a declaration that the reporters who wrote it actually saw the ‘documents’ alluded to. Did they ask for any documentation of what they'd been told (the day before)?

A second --- and bigger --- question. Who are the “administration officials” who fed this highly ambiguous description of Sampson’s chart to the WashPost? Are they actually in the DOJ, as the article seems to imply? If not, where are they? Are there just two of them? (I like a good joke as much as anyone else does, but please tell me the reporters weren’t reeled in by a couple of Armitage cronies.)

And what, oh what, was the game plan here? The March 20 Post article places this purported ‘ranking’ in the context of other mid-term firings of eight U.S. attorneys. The item was instantly believable for many people because of other White House actions --- remember Paul O’Neill, Colin Powell, etc. And of course the guilty verdict in the Libby trial made jokes, or fears, about firing Fitzgerald inevitable.

Whom were the unnamed ‘administration officials’ gunning for? Was it the Post, which got snookered once again by an administration that keeps on using the bait of access to play reporters like trout on the line?

Was it Fitzgerald, whose office has four prosecutors who were that day beginning the large, high-profile trial of former media mogul Conrad Black in Chicago?

Or was it Gonzales, whose credibility as Attorney General was further damaged by insinuations that he was somehow responsible for a false rating of a good prosecutor?

Regardless of the deeper accuracy, if any, of the item, that was quite a hook --- whatever else it was, it gaffed at least a couple of people --- the prosecutor possibly, though I would hope not, and Attorney General Gonzales certainly, and in this instance unfairly. That said, the AG is still the man at the top in Justice. Perhaps the DOJ still has the resources to find out who ‘leaked’ –- actually, planted -– this bit of "swift-boating" mischief in a national newspaper. Its effect cannot be to make the DOJ look good, or to strengthen Justice within the administration.

A remaining question is whether reporters with high-level access are ever going to get a clue. We know by now that the White House and the Office of the Vice President will eagerly ‘leak’ an ‘exclusive’ to make an item a better plant --- like Judith Miller’s Iraq WMD, like Bob Novak’s ‘his wife sent him,’ like the WaPo's ‘Saddam’s own people will rise up against him.’ This administration has done it to them over and over again.

One last note: Just before Durbin was to ask his questions, the Senate GOP tried to cut off the hearing by applying the seldom-enforced 2-hour rule. For 15 to 30 minutes journalists and others milled around in the Hart central hearing room, waiting for further word, until Republican senators apparently reversed course and termed it all a misunderstanding. (Senator Hatch remained in Hart 216, speaking with the press.) Then Durbin --- finally --- got his chance to question Sampson.