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Newly appointed US Attorney John McKay of the Western District of Washington State (see October 24, 2001) begins investigating the murder of Thomas C. Wales, an Assistant US Attorney (AUSA) in the office. Wales, a popular AUSA and a strong advocate of gun control, was murdered three weeks before McKay took office, when someone shot and killed him through his basement window. Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis had recused the office from investigating the crime, because, McKay will later state, the Justice Department (DOJ) had no confidence in the prosecutor initially assigned to the case. Moreover, as the case was a likely candidate for a death penalty prosecution, he will tell a reporter that the office is recused because “[y]ou couldn’t have Tom’s friends in the office making those kinds of decisions.”
Begins Pressuring Justice Department - Shortly after taking office, McKay begins pressuring Deputy Attorney General (DAG) Larry Thompson to replace the prosecutor on the Wales case. McKay will recall having several “tense conversations” with Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Christopher Wray concerning this issue. In March 2002, the DOJ assigns a more experienced prosecutor to the case. The DOJ sends no additional manpower to Seattle to help with the case, and initially offers a $25,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the killer, an amount FBI Special Agent Charles Mandigo will later call “insultingly small.” (After McKay’s intervention, the DOJ later raises the reward to $1 million.) McKay later says that while he is not directly involved in the investigation, he pushed hard for the DOJ to commit more resources to the investigation, and felt it was his responsibility to act as a conduit between the Seattle FBI office and the DOJ regarding resources for the case. He will say that while he was assertive, he remained professional and appropriate in his conduct; no one in the DOJ ever complained to him about his actions, he will say. “My mistake was that I assumed ‘recusal’ was ‘recusal’,” he will say. “I had erred in assuming that I was completely recused from even asking questions about the allocation of resources. I assumed it would have the highest priority within the Department of Justice. I once worked at the FBI for a year, and during that time an agent was killed in Las Vegas. They deploy like crazy when an agent is killed. Agents got off the airplane that night from DC to investigate. The director of the FBI flew out. That was not the reaction we were getting from the Department of Justice after Tom Wales was killed. Over 2002, I decided that really it should be my job to advocate for appropriate resources to be devoted to the Wales case.”
Speculation as to Politicization of Investigation - Many involved in the investigation believe that the Wales murder is a low priority for the DOJ because his liberal politics clash with the rightward tilt of the senior officials appointed by the Bush administration.
Aggressive but Appropriate - A 2008 Justice Department investigation of the 2006 US Attorney firings (see September 29, 2008) will find no reason to dispute McKay’s recollection of events. Both Thompson and Wray will describe McKay as being aggressive about making sure the investigation has adequate resources. Thompson will recall no tension between himself and McKay, though he will recall some of his then-staff members complaining about McKay’s pressure and demands for resources. Thompson will admit to becoming irritated with McKay on occasion, but will emphasize that McKay conducted himself in an appropriate manner at all times. It was “not new in the annals of the Department of Justice [that] a DAG got aggravated with a US Attorney,” he will say. He will not recall discussing the matter with Kyle Sampson, the chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the architect of the plan to fire the US Attorneys (see November 15, 2006). Wray will recall that some in the DOJ considered McKay to be “high maintenance,” in regard to the Wales investigation and with other issues. While some in the DAG’s office informally discussed McKay’s behavior among themselves, Wray will recall, no formal review of his conduct was ever undertaken. Wray will also not recall any discussions with Sampson, though he will say he kept Gonzales’s office apprised of the events surrounding the Wales investigation. Margolis will recall McKay being somewhat emotional about the Wales case and extremely pushy, he found his conduct entirely justifiable considering the situation. Margolis will say that he doubts Sampson would have listed McKay for removal because of his interactions with Thompson. (Toobin 8/6/2007; US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General 9/29/2008)
Remains Unsolved - The Wales murder will remain unsolved. (Toobin 8/6/2007)
FBI agents investigating the Plame Wilson identity leak inform Attorney General John Ashcroft that they believe White House political strategist Karl Rove and conservative columnist Robert Novak may be conspiring to hide the truth behind Rove’s involvement in the leak. They also inform Ashcroft that they believe Lewis Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, has lied to FBI investigators about his role in leaking Plame Wilson’s identity to the press. Although it is unclear who provides this briefing to Ashcroft, he is usually briefed on the status of the investigation by John Dion, the head of the FBI investigation, and Christopher Wray, the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division. (Waas 5/25/2006; Waas 6/8/2006)
Novak's Attempt to Protect Rove - They inform Ashcroft of a telephone conversation between Rove and Novak, in which Novak promised to protect Rove from the FBI investigation, presumably by either refusing to disclose him as a source of his knowledge of Plame Wilson’s identity (see September 29, 2003) or lying to investigators. Although Ashcroft receives routine briefings on the status of the FBI investigation, the bureau considers this important enough to warrant a special briefing for him on the matter. The FBI believes that after the conversation with Rove, Novak did indeed change his story about the leak, characterizing White House officials’ role in it as entirely passive. A week after Novak publicly outed Plame Wilson, he told reporters that he didn’t “dig out” the Plame Wilson information, but rather “it was given to me.… They thought it was significant. They gave me the name, and I used it” (see July 21, 2003). This account suggests that Rove was actively trying to expose Plame Wilson as a CIA officer, as reporter Murray Waas will later write. But the same day he spoke with Rove, Novak provided a different story, saying no one at the White House gave him the information (see September 29, 2003). Novak’s first story fits more closely with accounts later given by reporters such as Time’s Matthew Cooper (see July 13, 2005) and the New York Times’s Judith Miller (see September 30, 2005). (Waas 5/25/2006)
Libby's Lies to FBI - The FBI also informs Ashcroft that it has acquired evidence—personal notes from Libby—that contradicts Libby’s assertions that he learned of Plame Wilson’s identity from journalists (see October 14, 2003). Libby also told investigators that he had merely considered the information about Plame Wilson’s covert CIA status “unsubstantiated rumors” when he leaked that information to reporters (see June 23, 2003, 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003, Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003, and 2:24 p.m. July 12, 2003), another lie. (Waas 6/8/2006)
Ashcroft Declines to Recuse Himself - Ashcroft will recuse himself from participation in the investigation in December, in part because of the potential of a conflict of interest stemming from his previous relationship with Rove (see December 30, 2003) as well as other White House officials. Some FBI investigators believe that he should have recused himself as soon as he learned that Rove and Libby were possibly involved in the leak; some have also noted privately that many of Ashcroft’s top aides came from the Republican National Committee (RNC), which they suspect has been working closely with the White House to pressure Ashcroft not to name a special prosecutor. In 2006, law professor Stephen Gillers will say: “There is always going to be an interim period during which you decide you will recuse or not recuse. But [Ashcroft] should have had an ‘aha!’ moment when he learned that someone, figuratively, or in this case literally, next door to the president of the United States—who was Ashcroft’s boss—was under suspicion.” Ashcroft’s spokesman Mark Corallo has explained that Ashcroft declined to recuse himself because of his intense interest in the probe. Corallo will later become the spokesman for Rove. Fellow law professor Charles Wolfram, like Gillers a specialist in legal ethics, agrees with Gillers. In 2006, Wolfram says the “most distressing” ethical aspect of the case is that Ashcroft continued overseeing the probe even after Cheney’s name arose. “This should have been a matter of common sense,” Wolfram will note. Ashcroft “should have left it to career prosecutors whether or not to go after politically sensitive targets. You can’t have Ashcroft investigate the people who appointed him or of his own political party.” (Waas 6/8/2006)
The US indicts leading radical imam Abu Hamza al-Masri, shortly after his arrest in Britian (see May 27, 2004). Abu Hamza is indicted on eleven counts, covering his part in a kidnapping scheme in Yemen (see December 28-29, 1998), the recruitment of a radical named Feroz Abbasi to attend a training camp in Afghanistan (see December 2000-December 2001), and a conspiracy to open a jihad training camp in Oregon (see November 1999-Early 2000).
Alleged Contact with High-Ranking al-Qaeda Terrorists - At the extradition hearing, the lawyer acting for the US describes Abu Hamza as having “engaged in a systematic pattern of terrorist activity since at least 1998….” The lawyer also points out: “He is no less than a supporter and facilitator of terrorism. He has been in contact with and provided support for terrorist groups and people associated with terrorist groups… He has had contact with high-ranking terrorists in the Taliban and al-Qaeda.” Abu Hamza declines to go to the US voluntarily and decides to fight the extradition request.
Indictment Is Media Event - The arrest and indictment is major news in the US and television programming is interrupted for a live press conference by Attorney General John Ashcroft. Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will later comment: “The Americans were jubilant, so much so that they insisted that daytime soap operas were interrupted to carry live television coverage of a press conference hosted by John Ashcroft, then Attorney General in the Bush administration. Ashcroft was joined on the platform by a crowd of smiling deputies, federal prosecutors, FBI officials and police chiefs. Just in case the public did not grasp the message, there was a huge portrait of Abu Hamza alongside them, caught in mid-rant, his one eye glaring, the steel hook raised.” Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray calls Abu Hamza “a terrorist facilitator with a global reach,” and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says, “Think of him as a freelance consultant to terrorist groups worldwide.” (O'Neill and McGrory 2006, pp. 282-5)
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