WASHINGTON — Former top Bush aides Karl Rove and Harriet Miers have agreed to testify behind closed doors to the House Judiciary Committee about the sudden firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006.
The arrangement, announced Wednesday, is a compromise in the long-running constitutional battle between the Bush administration and Democrats and is expected to spare the Obama White House from having to get involved.
While the testimony will be under "penalty of perjury" as House Democrats demanded, Miers and Rove won't have to answer the committee's questions in an open hearing.
No date for the testimony was announced.
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The committee, however, has reserved the right to require public testimony from Rove and Miers. Both sides also agreed that assertions of official privileges would be "significantly limited" and the depositions will be transcribed, according to the committee. Under terms of the agreement, the committee will make public all of the transcripts upon completion of the last interviews.
Democrats hope that Miers and Rove will answer questions about the Bush White House's role in the firings and whether prosecutors were improperly targeted for bucking the administration.
"This is a victory for the separation of powers and congressional oversight," said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "It is also a vindication of the search for truth. I am determined to have it known whether U.S. attorneys in the Department of Justice were fired for political reasons, and if so, by whom."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised the agreement but said, "it should not have taken until now," in a swipe at the previous administration.
The deal was reached after a lawyer for former Bush political adviser Rove asked the White House to referee his clash with the House of Representatives over Rove's claim of executive privilege in the matter.
White House Counsel Greg Craig praised the agreement Wednesday, saying it will allow the committee to complete its investigation, which he called "in the interest of the American people."
"And it will do so in the way such disputes have historically been resolved — through negotiation and accommodation between the legislative and executive branches," he said in a statement.
Members of the committee have been seeking the testimony of Rove and Miers since the spring of 2007. The committee filed suit against Miers and former White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten last year to compel Miers' testimony and force Bolten to hand over documents.
The controversy was sparked by the firings and a little-noticed change in the USA Patriot Act that allowed the Justice Department to install replacement U.S. attorneys without seeking congressional approval.
Congressional Democrats launched an investigation into the firings after they grew suspicious that the prosecutors had been ousted inappropriately because several either hadn't pursued voter fraud cases against Democrats or because they investigated Republican politicians on corruption charges.
Separately, a special prosecutor is investigating what role White House officials had in the firings and whether their involvement constituted a crime.
The Bush White House, which had denied that the firings were retaliatory or improper, based its executive privilege position on legal guidance from the Justice Department that concluded it would violate the constitutional separation of powers to compel testimony from White House aides.
The department also has maintained since 1984 that it isn't bound to enforce a congressional contempt citation against an administration official who, under presidential orders, defies a congressional subpoena on grounds of executive privilege.
However, a federal judge in Washington agreed with the House that Miers didn't have the right to ignore the subpoena from Congress. District Judge John D. Bates' 93-page ruling was considered a significant setback for the Bush administration, which had asserted a broad executive-privilege claim that would've protected Miers from appearing.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit later delayed the effect of the ruling until after November's elections.
As part of the agreement announced Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee also will receive Bush White House documents relevant to the inquiry. Under the agreement, Bates' ruling "will be preserved," according to the committee. If the agreement is breached, the committee can resume the litigation.
The committee also reserved the right to depose William Kelley, a former White House lawyer who played a role in the firings.
Although Rove isn't named in the lawsuit, the House continued to demand his appearance. In recent months, Rove's attorney indicated that his client would be willing to testify about his role in the prosecution and conviction of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat, on bribery charges. Democrats wanted Rove to testify about the matter because they suspect that he instigated the prosecution.
However, Democrats also insist that Rove should be made to testify about the firings. Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, didn't return calls.
In September, the Justice Department's Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility found "substantial evidence" that partisan politics played a role in several of the ousters and accused former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales of abdicating his responsibility to safeguard the independence of the department. Gonzales resigned during the controversy.
The report also concluded that White House officials were more involved in the firings than the administration initially admitted. However, the report also said that investigators were impeded from resolving questions about the White House's actions because several former and current Bush aides, including Rove, refused to cooperate with his investigation.
Earlier, McClatchy reported that the New Mexico Republican Party chairman urged Rove to fire the state's U.S. attorney, David Iglesias, in part because of dissatisfaction with his failure to indict Democrats in a voter fraud investigation in the state.
Internal e-mails released during the controversy show that Miers initially proposed firing all 93 U.S. attorneys, but then-attorney general aide Kyle Sampson worked with her and others to narrow the list to nine.
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