When James Comey was the second-highest-ranking official at the Justice Department, he says he had "no idea" there was an effort under way...

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When James Comey was the second-highest-ranking official at the Justice Department, he says he had “no idea” there was an effort under way to put together a list of U.S. attorneys to fire, which ultimately included John McKay.

Comey, deputy attorney general from October 2003 to August 2005, was subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to testify about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year. He is the latest in a long line of witnesses called by congressional Democrats in an investigation into who was responsible for the dismissals and how they were handled.

When Comey testifies Thursday, he may not be able to shed much light on the rationale for the firings or identify the ultimate decision-makers, but Comey is well-acquainted with each of the fired prosecutors.

During an interview Tuesday, Comey characterized McKay, the former U.S. attorney for Western Washington, in a way that is at odds with the Justice Department’s explanation that McKay was fired for insubordination and overly aggressive advocacy of an information-sharing plan Comey himself endorsed.

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Comey said he remembers having two informal discussions with his bosses — one with former Attorney General John Ashcroft, and one with current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — about underperforming U.S. attorneys.

“I had brief conversations twice about who I thought were the weakest U.S. attorneys, and I answered twice off the top of my head,” Comey said. “During both conversations, my understanding was we were doing what any team manager does from time to time, which was to try to figure out who your weakest players are.”

But Comey said he never put together a formal ranking of prosecutors, and he was not aware of discussions, recently revealed by documents and congressional testimony, between former Justice Department chief of staff Kyle Sampson and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers as early as January 2005 about firing various U.S. attorneys.

Comey is now general counsel at Lockheed Martin. Paul McNulty succeeded him as deputy attorney general.

Puzzling talking points

Comey, who became McKay’s boss in late 2003, expressed puzzlement at Justice Department talking points released in recent weeks that suggest McKay was fired, in part, for insubordination.

“It’s inconsistent with my experience with John,” Comey said. “John was a person of passion and energy and could wear his heart on his sleeve. But I never had any issues with him being insubordinate.”

But Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that “serious concerns” about McKay’s judgment led to his dismissal. Gonzales specifically cited McKay’s aggressive advocacy of an information-sharing system known as LInX (Law Enforcement Information Exchange), and a memo about LInX that McKay sent to McNulty in August.

Gonzales said McKay “misled” 16 other U.S. attorneys into co-signing the letter by persuading them McNulty would welcome the letter, when in fact the letter “angered” and “surprised” McNulty, who believed McKay was “challenging” him.

LInX was launched by the Navy’s Criminal Investigative Service to keep tabs on criminal activity near Navy installations around the Puget Sound area. McKay worked with local law-enforcement agencies to expand the program and urged the Justice Department to get on board by adding investigative files.

Comey had already concluded the department had to swap more information with state and local partners. He wanted to create a system as easy to use as an Internet search engine, accessible by all levels of law enforcement.

But to get skeptics on board, Comey needed a success story.

McKay and Jim McDevitt, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington, had espoused the virtues of LInX to Comey when he was still a U.S. attorney. McKay gave Comey a more formal pitch in late 2004.

“Comey got it immediately,” McKay recalls. “He saw what we were doing, and he understood the issues. He went back to D.C. after the meeting and told his staff to figure out how to get the Department of Justice involved in what we were doing out here.”

On April 22, 2005, Comey formally ordered all Department of Justice agencies to participate in a LInX pilot project in Washington state led by McKay.

After McNulty replaced Comey as deputy attorney general in early 2006, he gave McKay’s advocacy of LInX an early endorsement by making McKay chairman of the department’s Regional Law Enforcement Information Sharing (RIS) Working Group.

In that role, McKay pushed to aggressively expand LInX to other regions. E-mails released by the Justice Department show that throughout 2006 McKay pushed McNulty and his aides to get behind a variety of LInX initiatives.

In June, McKay indicated several U.S. attorneys wanted to launch LInX programs in their jurisdictions, but expressed frustration that little help was coming from headquarters.

“Critical juncture”

“We are at a critical juncture in which huge demand among U.S. attorneys resulting from a strong LInX program and successes in the field are smack up against serious failures by the DOJ law-enforcement components” to comply with the mandates of Comey’s 2005 memo, McKay wrote to McNulty and his aide, Bill Mercer, on June 27.

McKay and Debra Yang, the former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, raised these and other concerns of the regional working group during a July 19 conference call with McNulty.

Afterward, McKay told the group in an e-mail obtained by The Seattle Times that he and Yang had an “excellent meeting” with McNulty, who “reiterated his strong support of LInX.”

Six weeks later, McKay sent the controversial Aug. 31 memo because he believed McNulty had failed to live up to his promises and had decided to revoke his support for LInX.

McKay also thought the letter, co-signed by 16 other U.S. attorneys, might help McNulty overcome resistance to LInX from other parts of the Justice Department.

“Given that he’d agreed to every point in that phone call, I assumed he would want the letter,” McKay said. “That turned out to be a major miscalculation.”

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com

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