More stonewalling at Justice
The controversy over the removal of several U.S. attorneys last year has been spreading by the week. But Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales sees no reason to change his approach, which is modeled on Muhammad Ali's famous rope-a-dope.The media initially saw this as a non-story and it was up to alternative media mogul Josh Marshall to keep it alive. Now it's a front page story nearly everyday and even the conservative media is asking some tough questions.
At a hearing last week before the House Judiciary Committee, he evaded precise answers and professed a poor memory, while insisting that the decision to sack the prosecutors was utterly sound. The apparent administration hope is that by denying and stonewalling, Gonzales can not only save his job but eventually exhaust all interest in the matter.
This is not good enough. Serious charges have been leveled that undermine public confidence in federal law enforcement, and they have not been convincingly rebutted. To continue to try to shrug off the issue will only deepen suspicions that this administration has taken justice out of the Justice Department.
The purge of prosecutors looks increasingly like an effort to turn U.S. attorneys into arms of the Republican National Committee. Some of the eight prosecutors known to have been fired last year had antagonized White House political adviser Karl Rove and GOP politicians by failing to pursue cases that could have affected last year's election outcome.
If you are still inclined to give Gonzales the benefit of the doubt on something he claims to have left mostly to subordinates, consider the testimony of his former deputy attorney general, James Comey. He told the Judiciary Committee that he had a "very positive" opinion of most of the U.S. attorneys who were dismissed, and that only one of the firings was warranted.
He was even more disturbed by charges that a former aide to Gonzales, Monica Goodling, used political criteria in the hiring of career prosecutors. Besides being a possible violation of federal law, that alleged practice would have a terribly corrosive effect. If it occurred, said Comey, "it deprives the department of its lifeblood, which is the ability to stand up and have juries of all stripes believe what you say and have sheriffs and judges and jailers -- the people we deal with -- trust the Department of Justice."
Americans apparently will get to hear from Goodling, who had refused to answer questions before Congress for fear of incriminating herself. Last week, a federal judge gave her immunity from prosecution and said she must testify if called. Members of Congress should also get to hear sworn testimony from Rove and other White House aides, which President Bush has refused to allow. And it's anyone's guess whether the resignation of Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul McNulty, announced Monday, is connected to the controversy. McNulty had admitted giving Congress faulty information about the firings.
Because of these developments, public trust in the department is in serious jeopardy. The president and the attorney general now have the burden of demonstrating that the administration acted properly in this episode. So far, they show no sign of being able to.