In 18 months of searching, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and Office of Professional Responsibility chief H. Marshall Jarrett have uncovered new e-mail messages hinting at heightened involvement of White House lawyers and political aides in the firings of nine federal prosecutors two years ago.
But they could not probe much deeper because key officials declined to be interviewed and a critical timeline drafted by the White House was so heavily redacted that it was "virtually worthless as an investigative tool," the authorities said.
"We were unable to fully develop the facts regarding the removal of [David C.] Iglesias and several other U.S. Attorneys because of the refusal by certain key witnesses to be interviewed by us, as well as the White House's decision not to provide ... internal documents to us," the investigators concluded in their report.
The standoff is a central reason that Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey on Monday named a veteran public-corruption prosecutor, Nora R. Dannehy, to continue the investigation, directing her to give him a preliminary report on the status of the case in 60 days.
But lawmakers who helped expose irregularities in the ouster of the prosecutors say they are concerned about more delays.
Yesterday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) wrote Mukasey a letter asking whether Dannehy would have the authority to compel documents from the White House and testimony from former presidential aide Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers, who rejected invitations to meet voluntarily with the inspector general.
He also expressed concern that any information Dannehy may obtain would be kept under wraps because of grand jury secrecy rules, leaving members of the public in the dark. "There are a lot of questions that need to be answered," Whitehouse said.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said that Dannehy will "have the same authority as any prosecutor to pursue this investigation wherever the facts and the law require."
Investigators urged Dannehy to focus on the dismissal of Iglesias in New Mexico. He was the subject of repeated complaints by Republican lawmakers to White House and Justice Department officials in 2005 and 2006 over not bringing voter-fraud and corruption charges against Democrats. Their report said the internal probe at Justice could not reach Miers and Rove, "both of whom appear to have significant first-hand knowledge regarding Iglesias's dismissal."
The report depicts a steady drumbeat of pressure leading up to the 2006 elections. Republican former state senator Mickey D. Barnett e-mailed Rove in October to complain about the pace of a federal bribery probe that Iglesias's office was conducting against a Democratic rival. Barnett wrote that he had already complained to Justice Department White House liaison Monica M. Goodling and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).
That same month, President Bush and Rove both spoke to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales about rampant voter fraud in three cities, one in New Mexico, Gonzales told investigators.
In November, Domenici's chief of staff, Steven Bell, e-mailed Rove seething about voting issues in New Mexico and expressing "worry" about Iglesias. Rove advised Bell to have Domenici reach out to the attorney general. Around the same time, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty received a phone call from Miers, who passed along complaints about Iglesias that she had heard from Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.)
At a White House breakfast in mid-November, Wilson approached Rove to tell him that the U.S. attorney was a "waste of breath," according to her interview with investigators. She said Rove told her: "That decision has already been made. He's gone."
Less than three hours later, a Justice Department official forwarded a firing list to the White House Counsel's Office on which Iglesias's name appeared, giving rise to questions about how Rove learned about its contents in advance, and whether the department ultimately fired Iglesias for improper political reasons.
Robert D. Luskin, an attorney for Rove, said: "We'll look forward to the opportunity if the circumstances are appropriate of Rove being able to cooperate voluntarily. Rove has nothing to fear from truthful testimony."
"If, in the course of her investigation, she needs information, we will certainly want to accommodate her," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said of Dannehy. A lawyer for Miers did not return calls seeking comment.