The move escalates a months-long conflict between Leahy and the White House by reordering several administration officials, including the president's former deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, to immediately appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee or face possible contempt charges.
Leahy, chairman of the committee, is prepared to hold a committee vote on the contempt citations as soon as next Thursday, according to an aide. If approved by committee members 10 Democrats, nine Republicans the citations would move to the full Senate, where the likelihood of their passage is diminished.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said she is "baffled" by Leahy's decision.
The maneuvering comes almost a year after the committee began investigating the firing of U.S. attorneys. Critics that include some Republicans claim administration officials sought to hide a politically motivated purge by providing misleading testimony to Congress.
"It is obvious that the reasons given for these firings were contrived as part of a cover up and that the stonewalling by the White House is part and parcel of that same effort," Leahy wrote in an official ruling that rejects administration claims of executive privilege.
He added that the claim of executive privilege is based on "untested" legal determinations that provide sweeping protection for officials in various layers of the administration. Leahy also raised the idea that the officials could face legal charges like obstruction of justice.
"Along the way, this subversion of the justice system has included lying, misleading, stonewalling and ignoring the Congress in our attempts to determine what happened," Leahy said. "The evidence obtained raises concerns about the violation of federal laws, including possible obstruction of justice, laws prohibiting misleading or inaccurate testimony to Congress, and possible violations of laws like the Hatch Act prohibiting retaliation against federal employees for improper political reasons," he added.
The White House rejects those claims, saying the appointment of U.S. attorneys is the president's prerogative. The firings were based on nonpolitical considerations, the administration asserts.
It's Leahy who's pursuing politics, Perino said, suggesting that Republicans senators won't support the contempt citations. "Sen. Leahy, himself, has said that these contempt filings would be futile, and yet they continue to move forward with them," Perino told reporters Thursday. "I don't understand why he continues to have this rope-a-dope that's not going to go anywhere." The White House has delivered thousands of documents to congressional committees, showing what the administration says is an effort to cooperate with lawmakers. The claim of executive privilege protects the administration's internal deliberation process, officials say.
The purge, however, has stained the Justice Department. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was forced out, and handfuls of senior officials have left during the investigation focusing on the politicization of the department by White House officials.
"The evidence we have found supports a conclusion that officials from the highest political ranks at the White House, including Mr. Rove, manipulated the Justice Department into its own political arm to pursue a partisan political agenda," Leahy said. Rove failed to heed a subpoena ordering him to appear before the committee last summer. White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten also failed to provide documents that could show additional White House involvement in the firings.
Leahy is also demanding additional testimony from Sara Taylor, former White House political director, and her deputy, J. Scott Jennings, both of whom sidestepped the committee's questions over the summer by claiming executive privilege.