The murk and dirt of the White House

At last, the everyday corruption of the Bush administration is gradually being brought out into the

It's now the cardinal rule of 21st-century politics: don't send even the most innocuous emails, to absolutely anyone, if you are a remotely important politician or government official. A very senior FBI man told me the other day not to send an email to his office: "Remember," he warned me, "emails never disappear if you know where to look for them."

He knows a thing or two about tracing emails. Because the FBI was able to retrieve thousands of them sent to and from the crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff (see the NS of 12 December 2005), Abramoff, a colleague and a congressman are now in the clink (with more heading there, too). But the Bush administration has still not learned that lesson, and was blithely sending potentially incriminatory emails to each other even after last November, when it had lost the midterm congressional elections and should have realised that in future a Democratic-controlled Congress would be able to subpoena past and present inter-office memos and emails.

Which, of course, is exactly what the Democrats have immediately set about doing. A few days ago, the Democrats got their hands on 143 pages of memos and emails sent from the justice department office of Bush's stunningly mediocre attorney general, 51-year-old Alberto Gonzales (hitherto best known for pronouncing that the regulations on POWs in the Geneva Conventions are "obsolete").

His chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, a lawyer himself, has already resigned and hired his own lawyer. It's only a matter of time before Gonzales goes: all that is saving him so far is that Dubbya cannot bear to think the media or the Democrats have forced him to sack anybody. Bush says he has "full confidence" in Gonzales, which places him in a minority of one in Washington.

It's hard to know which is more dangerous: the Bush administration's arrogance, or its ignorance. I will start explaining Attorneygate with an email sent by Sampson. It is about Carol Lam, the attorney who successfully prosecuted the Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, whose egregiously flagrant corruption I outlined in that 12 December article.

Lam, a ferociously determined 47-year-old who specialises in fraud investigations, subsequently put Cunningham behind bars for eight years and had him fined $1.8m - but was not content to leave it there. She knew that Cunningham's corruption was only the tip of an iceberg which had myriad interconnections between politicians and lobbyists - and involved huge Pentagon contracts for the purchase of military equipment from various defence contractors, represented, inevitably, by lobbyists.

All of which meant that she was also actively investigating links between the Republican representative Jerry Lewis - chairman of the hugely powerful House appropriations committee until the party switchover in January - and his close friend Bill Lowery, a former Republican congressman who became a Washington lobbyist after leaving Congress amid rumours of corruption in 1992. Lam, was at the same time investigating the connections between Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, then the CIA's third most important officer, but who is now under criminal indictment for fraud and other corruption - and his close friend, a military contractor called Brent Wilkes. Lam believed that Foggo was using his position to push large contracts the way of Wilkes - in return for which he would be given, among other things, a lucrative post in Wilkes's firm after his retirement from the CIA.

With me so far? I have to say here in passing, alas, that the main reason the corruption which is so rife in Washington is not unearthed more frequently is that the trails are normally tortuously complex. But back to the emails: on 10 May last year, Lam notified the US justice department (of which Gonzales is head) that she intended to issue search warrants in the Foggo/Wilkes/ Lowery/Lewis investigations.

The very next day, Sampson emailed Gonzales's deputy: "The real problem we have right now is with Carol Lam." To cut a long story short, Lam then found herself one of seven US attorneys who were summarily told in phone calls last 7 December that they were being dismissed for "underperformance".

Let us examine briefly, too, the case of David Iglesias, 49, the US attorney for New Mexico, who was appointed by the administration in 2001 and subsequently rated by it as a "top performer". Republican Senator Pete Domenici got a bee in his bonnet that Democrats had been fiddling voter registrations in his state, and Iglesias was asked to investigate. Last October, Domenici phoned Iglesias, apparently to exert pressure on him to prosecute Democrats. When Iglesias told him he had no evidence to bring charges, Domenici abruptly hung up.

The following month, the senator (who, it has to be said, is not the brightest bulb on the planet) took his complaint straight to Bush. Then, although Iglesias was one of two of the 93 US attorneys who had set up task forces to investigate possible voter registration fraud, he too found himself dismissed last December, on orders from "on high", he now says with a knowing wink. Harriet Miers - the president's woefully underqualified counsel until her departure last January whom, ludicrously, he tried to appoint to the Supreme Court in 2005 - was told that the Domenici camp was "happy as a clam" over the sacking of Iglesias.

A third, last, example: Harry "Bud" Cummins, US attorney in Arkansas, was summarily sacked along with Lam and Iglesias to make way for an inexperienced lawyer named Tim Griffin, a former Republican speechwriter and protégé of Karl Rove. Getting him appointed was "important to Harriet, Karl [Rove] etc", Sampson explained in an email. In a chilling aside, Cummins was meantime being told that the department would "somehow pull their gloves off" if he made a fuss about his dismissal.

Sampson, by this time, was telling a colleague in an email that 80-85 per cent of US attorneys "exhibited loyalty to the president and the attorney general" and that the "vast majority" of them were "loyal Bushies". The problem was the remaining 15-20 per cent - all Bush appointees - who had turned out not to be the partisan prosecutors the administration had confidently expected them to be.

There are 93 US attorneys and all are political appointees, but once appointed their duty is to uphold the law and be strictly unbiased politically. Reagan, Clinton and Dubbya ended up in effect sacking all previously appointed US attorneys after they came into office - which they were fully entitled to do - but what is unprecedented is for an administration to fire its own appointees, not only for political disloyalty, but in the middle of a presidential term.

Rove, however, has perfected a modus operandi, dating back to 1986, of using US attorneys for political ends. Typically, a few weeks before a close state or national election, there will be mysterious leaks that the Democratic candidate is being investigated for something or other by a (covertly co-operative) US attorney - which inevitably, when confirmed by the obliging US attorney's office, results in adverse publicity for the Democratic candidate. Following the elections, of course, the "investigations" vanish into thin air. A study by Illinois State University found that between 2001 and 2006 - which is to say, the time Bush has been in power - 18 per cent of US attorney investigations of politicians have involved Republicans, but nearly 80 per cent were of Democrats. Far more Republicans ended up being charged, however.

The problem for the administration now, as ever, is that it simply can't get its stories straight. America's political scandals - from Watergate to the involvement of Scooter Libby in Plamegate - have gathered steam not from the original bad deed, but from the ensuing cover-ups and lies. What is now terrifying Rove et al is that the Democrats have already discovered that the administration has been lying here, there and everywhere - which it found it could do with impunity while there was a rubber-stamping Republican Congress that chose not to exercise oversight.

Thus, on 18 January, Gonzales told the Senate judiciary committee a blatant whopper under oath when he said the sackings were due to the "performance of individuals". The boneheaded Gonzales had apparently not woken up to the crucial fact that the Democratic majority now in Congress could get hold of documents showing that nearly all the individual attorneys had, in fact, received high job performance ratings from his very own department.

Three weeks later, his deputy, Paul McNulty, testified (also under oath) that politics had not been involved in the dismissals - and a fortnight later yet another official in the department of justice said that the White House had been consulted about the dismissals only "eventually". It then emerged that the entire plan had actually been hatched 22 months earlier by Miers, with Rove's knowledge, right from the very heart of the White House.

Bush himself happened to be visiting Latin America when the furore broke, and the White House panicked so much that his director of communications, Dan Bartlett, hastily convened a press conference in Mérino, Mexico. Back in Washington, Tony Snow, the hapless White House spokesman, was left flailing around helplessly.

Senior Republicans are now jumping ship left, right and centre - particularly those senators who face re-election next year and for whom Bush has become a huge liability. "Mistakes were made," is the nearest Gonzales has so far come to a mea culpa, a weaselly lawyeresque statement if ever there was one. Bush himself says that he is "not happy" with what has emerged. Hundreds of pages of more emails are expected to be released as I write, and I am told they make Gonzales's position even more untenable - if not a candidate for the clink himself.

The truth is that the murk and dirt of George W Bush's White House are, at last, beginning to be brought out into the daylight.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article appears in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?