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E-mail trail shows power struggle behind US attorneys' firings

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Apparently no top officials at the Justice Department pined for the task: appear before a House panel, just as a brewing flap over fired US prosecutors reached a boil, and try to explain what happened.

It would have to be someone able to withstand three hours of questioning, noted an internal Justice Department e-mail on the subject. The implication: It might be preferable to sit three hours in a dentist's chair.

Another departmental e-mail noted, jokingly, that good management dictated that the unfortunate selectee be notified in person. But e-mail it was. "I regret to say [Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty] picked you as the witness," said an e-mail to the chosen one, William Moschella, principal associate deputy attorney general.

As newly released Department of Justice documents make clear, the furor over the firings of eight US attorneys is at least partly driven by a power struggle between the US government's legislative and executive branches.

Much of that struggle reflects politics. Democrats in Congress continue to use their new majority status to mount hearings and investigations intended to put the White House on the defensive.

But it is partly institutional, as well. As attorney general, Alberto Gonzales has irritated powerful Republicans as well as Democrats. They may not be calling for his resignation, but neither are they rushing to his aid.

The Justice Department "has been running roughshod over Congress. What's happened here is, Congress is pushing back," says political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

That pushback can be seen in the speed with which Congress has moved to revoke new authority it granted the Bush administration last year to name federal prosecutors.

The authority was derived from a provision buried deep within the USA Patriot Act that allowed the attorney general to appoint federal prosecutors for an indefinite period without Senate confirmation.

'Less deference' to senators
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