Hold the frog-marching


After Bush administration leaks led to the identification of his wife as a covert CIA officer, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV publicly wished to see Karl Rove being “frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.” A lot of Democrats are no doubt having the same wish now that a judge rightly has ruled that former administration officials don’t have absolute immunity to congressional subpoenas in the investigation of the politicization of the Justice Department. Fortunately, party leaders seem to recognize that the narrowness of the decision and the length of the appeals process argue for compromise, not crowing.

Rove (who these days would have to be frog-marched out of a Fox News studio) wasn’t formally a party to last week’s decision by U.S. District Judge John D. Bates in a lawsuit brought by Congress. The ruling focused instead on former presidential counsel Harriet E. Miers and White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, both of whom have been cited for contempt of Congress for failing to testify at hearings. But the House Judiciary Committee has approved a contempt citation against Rove for the same reason. Clearly, he is the great white whale Democrats hope to land in their probe of whether the firings of nine U.S. attorneys were not just politically motivated but corrupt.

Congress has a right to document the extent to which the Justice Department did the bidding of political operatives in the White House. At least one of the fired U.S. attorneys -- David C. Iglesias in New Mexico -- seems to have lost his job because he wasn’t pursuing prominent Democrats fast enough for Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). Suspicions that other dismissals were motivated by politics have been deepened by an inspector general’s report, which concluded that conservative activists in the department improperly sought to exclude liberals, Democrats, gays and lesbians from jobs that were supposed to be nonpolitical.


Congress has a legitimate reason to question Miers, Bolten and Rove (though even under Bates’ ruling the witnesses could invoke executive privilege in connection with specific questions). But the administration also has some right on its side. Its claim of executive privilege, while overstated, is rooted in a legitimate concern about the need for the president to receive frank advice from his closest advisors.

More than a year ago, two senators on the Judiciary Committee -- Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) -- offered a way out of the impasse: Present and former White House aides could appear before Congress and answer questions for the record, but they wouldn’t be placed under oath. On Friday, White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, agreed to new negotiations on a compromise. That would be the best outcome of Congress’ lawsuit.