The escalating controversy over the Bush administration’s dismissal of eight federal prosecutors has ensnared the high-ranking Justice Department official who brought charges against two pro-Israel advocates for allegedly leaking classified information.
In recent weeks, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty has faced intense scrutiny for his role in the firing eight U.S. attorneys last year. Among Jewish organizations, McNulty is best known for his role in securing indictments of two employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — both of whom were subsequently dismissed from the organization.
Steven Rosen, Aipac’s former policy director, and Keith Weissman, the organization’s former Iran analyst, are slated to stand trial June 4, nearly three years after it came to light that they were being investigaed by the FBI. Both men have proclaimed their innocence.
McNulty, who brought the case against Rosen and Weissman as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, now finds himself in the spotlight. Democrats and several Republicans have called on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign. Speculation in Washington is mounting that the controversy could also cost McNulty his job.
The deputy attorney general is no longer the lead prosecutor in the case. But if McNulty were to leave under a cloud, it could lend ammunition to efforts by the defense team and some officials at other Jewish organizations to paint the prosecution as a politically biased effort.
In particular, McNulty is under fire for allegedly providing to congressional leaders an incomplete and inaccurate account of the dismissals. McNulty told lawmakers that the White House was minimally involved in the affair and that the prosecutors were fired over “performance-related issues,” not politics.
Subsequently, the Justice Department disclosed e-mail messages showing that the White House was involved in discussions, beginning in early 2005, about removing U.S. attorneys believed to be insufficiently loyal to the administration’s agenda.
Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Gonzales, resigned from his post last week. Initial reports indicated that he stepped down for failing to inform top Justice Department officials, including McNulty, of the administration’s role in the firings. Recently, however, Sampson’s lawyer said that any failure to brief McNulty was unintentional. McNulty and the Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
According to recent reports, McNulty said in a conversation with Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York that his congressional testimony had been inaccurate because he was misinformed by Justice Department officials who briefed him.
McNulty is also at the center of another key juncture in the mushrooming scandal. It was reportedly during a call to the deputy attorney general last October that Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, complained about one of the U.S. attorneys who was later fired.
McNulty’s chief of staff, Michael Elston, has also been put on the defensive. One of the fired prosecutors claims that Elston tried to keep him from speaking out.
“He was offering me a deal,” said John McKay, who served as U.S. attorney in the Western District of Washington. “You stay silent, and the attorney general won’t say anything bad about you.”
Elston has acknowledged that the call took place, but he denies attempting to intimidate McKay.