As Senate investigators put the final touches on a report on the handling of leaked memos, Judiciary Democrats took their grievances to the White House, demanding to know if Bush administration officials had access to the controversial documents.
In a letter to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, four senior Democrats on the Judiciary Committee formally asked the White House whether administration officials had any knowledge of or access to the thousands of memos that were taken from Democrats over a roughly 18-month period from 2001 to early 2003. The Democrats — Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Edward Kennedy (Mass.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.) — also pointedly asked whether Gonzales or his staff had received the memos or been shown the memos by members of two conservative interest groups that have been connected to the case.
“It appears that those involved in this surveillance and theft passed along information derived from their activities to partisan activists and to hand-picked columnists and media organizations,” the Senators wrote in a letter dated Feb. 25. “Questions arise as to whether anyone at the White House was involved or aware of these activities.”
The letter was the latest example of how Judiciary Democrats intend to keep the mushrooming memo scandal going, whatever the outcome of the internal investigation into the matter by Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle, who is expected to brief Leahy and Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) this afternoon on his final report.
Schumer, in an interview last week, contended there was “near unanimity” on the Democratic side of the panel that the Pickle probe will not be sufficient and that the matter should be forwarded to the Justice Department or another federal law enforcement entity. Schumer, Durbin and other Democrats believe that, since Pickle’s investigators have met with little success in interviewing representatives of outside conservative interest groups, only a federal investigator with subpoena power would be able to complete the investigation.
A handful of investigators, including some of the Secret Service agents who were detailed to Pickle’s office for the investigation, met Thursday with a figure at the center of the investigation, Manuel Miranda, a former Judiciary Committee staffer who worked for Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) last year on nominations.
Miranda resigned from Frist’s office earlier this month after admitting that he had read a fraction of the thousands of memos that another staffer had downloaded off a jointly shared server. He said the documents were not illegally stolen and that there was no “hacking” to access the memos.
His 90-minute meeting with Pickle’s agents Thursday was his third interview since the case began in mid-November. Miranda was accompanied by his two lawyers, who are handling his case pro bono.
In an interview, Miranda said the agents told him they had determined that he was not part of any computer hacking, but continued to focus their questions to him on his relationship to outside groups such as the Committee for Justice and the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary.
At one point the questioning centered on a Nov. 14 editorial in the Wall Street Journal, which began the controversy by excerpting comments from about 14 memos penned by Democratic staff and outlining meetings and contacts with liberal interest groups. “They asked me if I had written the Wall Street Journal editorial,” Miranda said. “I said, ‘This isn’t the Georgetown Voice, this is the Wall Street Journal.’”
In their attempts to trace how the memos went from the committee’s computers to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and Web sites such as the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary’s, the investigators have focused on Miranda, whose role in Frist’s office was partly as a liaison to interest groups on the right.
Early last month Pickle’s investigators asked the Wall Street Journal about their contacts with Miranda. They’ve also spoken to employees of the Committee for Justice and Coalition for a Fair Judiciary.
The investigators have generally been rebuffed in their efforts to talk to outside groups.
The Judiciary Democrats, in their letter to Gonzales, picked up on the belief that Miranda or another GOP aide took the stolen memos and gave them to one of the groups, which then relayed them to the Journal’s editorial page and the Washington Times, two outlets generally considered by conservatives to be more favorable to them in their coverage.
Their letter to Gonzales specifically asked for the White House to detail every instance in which it communicated with C. Boyden Gray and Sean Rushton, the chairman and executive director of the Committee for Justice, respectively, and Kay Daly, the founder of the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary.
Democrats have long believed that this scandal could explode if they were allowed to follow the path of the memos and place them inside the White House. When any of President Bush’s judicial nominees prepares for a hearing before the Judiciary Committee, aides from three entities prepare the nominee: Republican aides from Judiciary, Justice Department officials and staff in the White House counsel’s office.
“Did you or anyone who has served in your office or at the White House receive from Manuel Miranda or any other Senate employee or employees any of the computer files of Democratic Senators or their staffs or information derived from those files?” the Senators asked.
If all goes as planned, Hatch and Leahy expect to meet this afternoon with Pickle or one of his investigators to review the report. It’s unclear how much of the report they will release to the public, but other committee members — from liberals such as Durbin and Schumer to conservatives such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — are demanding that Hatch and Leahy include them in the process of deciding what to do next with the report.
Hatch said late last week he wasn’t sure what steps they would take, but continued to maintain that no “reasonable prosecutor” would likely pursue a case against Miranda.
“We’ll meet, and Leahy and I will discuss it. We’ll see where we go from there,” Hatch said.