The man who asked for the resignation of seven federal prosecutors, leading to the eventual ouster of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, publicly described his role in the dismissals for the first time on Thursday.
Michael Battle was the director of the Justice Department's Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys until last spring. Even today, Battle says, "I still have lingering feelings" about the firings. "I can't say that it was anything other than just distasteful."
Before he came to Washington, Battle was the U.S. attorney for Buffalo, N.Y. He still considers himself friends with many of the people he had to fire, saying, "Once a U.S. attorney, always a U.S. attorney."
Battle first saw the list of U.S. attorneys to be dismissed at a meeting in the attorney general's conference room in November 2006. Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, told the assembled staffers, "Everybody here knows the purpose of the meeting except Battle." The conversation focused on how the firings should work, not whether the prosecutors should be fired. By the time everyone left the room, Battle says, "It was very clear that I was going to be the one to make those calls."
In the last several months, evidence has emerged suggesting that some U.S. attorneys were fired because they weren't partisan enough in their law-enforcement decisions. Battle says he had no inside information then to suggest that anything nefarious was going on, and he still doesn't. He was just the messenger.
When asked whether Battle remembers what he told the prosecutors when he asked for their resignation, he says, "I don't know that I'll ever forget it."
The people he called greeted him warmly — which made the part that came next much more difficult.
"Listen," Battle said he told the U.S. attorneys. "I've been asked to call you and advise you that you're being asked to submit your resignation as U.S. attorney."
He says everyone reacted with surprise and shock. The responses varied from, "Could you repeat yourself?" to "Are you sure? Is there anyone I can call?"
That's when it got to be uncomfortable. Battle was not allowed to answer any of their questions. He had been instructed to say as little as possible.
As the public leaves the U.S. attorney firings in the past, there is one thing Battle wants to clarify. He has been described as one of the casualties of the U.S. attorney scandal, since he left the Justice Department just as the dismissals were starting to catch the public's attention.
In fact, he started looking for a new job six months before the scandal broke. A member of Congress who served as a job reference for Battle independently confirmed that fact.
Today, Battle works in a law firm with offices across the street from the Justice Department. He still looks across Pennsylvania Avenue with pride.
"I know there's some great work being done in there," Battle says. "I feel badly that some people look upon the [Justice] Department with a bit of disdain, and I feel bad for the people there who have to deal with that. And I know that it hurts them."