WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey on Wednesday cracked down on contacts that employees of the Justice Department may have with the White House, fulfilling a pledge to members of Congress concerned that the department had become unduly politicized under his predecessor.
The new guidelines, outlined in a memo to department heads and U.S. attorneys across the country, set the most restrictive limits on contacts between Justice Department and White House officials since the beginning of the Bush administration. The policies put especially strict limits on contacts involving pending criminal investigations or prosecutions.
Cozy relations between Justice Department and White House officials are thought by Democrats to be at the root of the scandal that led to the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year. Democrats think political appointees under former Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, in league with the White House, inappropriately shared information and targeted prosecutors whose records on voting rights and corruption displeased Republicans.
President Bush's attorneys general had increasingly relaxed the rules governing permissible contacts, first in an order in April 2002 by John Ashcroft and then in one by Gonzales in May 2006. One reason was to encourage communication after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Democrats have contended that the rules had the effect of increasing the number of White House and Justice Department employees who could share criminal case information from a handful to the hundreds. A concern has been that the larger circle of knowledgeable people could make cases more vulnerable to political pressure.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) estimated that the order signed by Gonzales, a longtime friend of Bush who was his White House counsel from 2001 to 2004, expanded the authority to discuss sensitive case information to more than 900 people in the executive branch from a total of seven during the Clinton administration.
"Today's new policy is a clear, unmistakable and welcome repudiation of the Gonzales era, and this change takes a significant step toward restoring Americans' confidence in the integrity of our justice system," said Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney.
The Justice Department said the rules generally followed those put in place by former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in 1994. Under the guidelines, four people -- the attorney general, the White House counsel and their respective deputies -- would be allowed to communicate information about investigations or criminal prosecutions. Officials may designate "the fewest number of people practicable" to discuss the matters in the event that subsequent contact is deemed necessary.
The policy continues to allow wide-ranging exchanges on terrorism issues. Mukasey said he did not want to discourage officials from sharing information that was crucial to national security. The guidelines also would allow discussions about legislation, budgets, policy issues and political appointments.