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The Justice Department Massacre Unravels

Yesterday, the Senate put an end to a dangerous political game.  By a vote of 94 to 2, it passed S. 214, which ensures U.S. Attorneys are independent of political manipulation.  The legislation brings back the checks and balances of prior law so that an Administration no longer will be able to do an end-run around Senate confirmation by making an interim appointment.  As we are learning, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, working hand-in-glove with the White House – think Karl Rove – fired eight federal prosecutors based on apparent political considerations including, at least in some instances, possibly to protect Republican wrongdoers from prosecution, as I discussed in an earlier opinion piece. 

Before this Administration came to power, politicizing federal prosecutors would have been unthinkable.  It also would have been of little political advantage to make a partisan interim appointment because that was time-limited, and the Senate would not confirm a 4-year appointment if the person did not exhibit the highest level of independence and integrity.  It was for this reason that, at the urging of the Administration, Republicans jammed through the little-noticed provision as part of last year’s renewal of the PATRIOT Act.  This revision gave the Attorney General the authority to replace fired prosecutors with interim appointments indefinitely, thereby allowing replacements to be chosen based on loyalty to Bush – not the Constitution – and shielded from exposure to Senate confirmation for the remainder of the Administration’s term.  Don’t be fooled when Bush says he did nothing wrong because the prosecutors serve at his pleasure.  That’s a big red herring.

We now know this cynical political game started back in 2005 when political advisers in the White House wanted to fire U.S. Attorneys that weren’t sufficiently loyal to Bush.  In a May 11th 2006 e-mail from Attorney General Gonzales’s chief of staff, Kyle Sampson (who himself has had to resign), to a Deputy White House Counsel, Sampson refers to “the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam that leads me to conclude we should have somebody ready to be nominated…the day her 4-year term expires.”  Carol Lam was the outstanding U.S. Attorney in San Diego, and former judge who successfully prosecuted Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) for bribery.  For this Administration, the “real” problem with Lam was that she was prosecuting political corruption in Republican ranks.  It’s no accident that Sampson’s May 11th e-mail was written the same day the Los Angeles Times reported an on-going probe of Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the then Chairman of the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee, which flowed from the Cunningham corruption case.

This Administration is only loyal to itself, not to the nation or to the Constitution.  In its quest for ever-more power for the sake of power, it has carelessly thrown overboard independent-minded prosecutors with barely a second thought, lied and concealed when the game was exposed and, worst of all, subjected these public servants to public humiliation.  At least we can be proud that these eight U. S. Attorneys stood up, spoke out, and pushed back.  They too have sent a clear and powerful message – don’t politicize prosecutors – and we have heard it.  So has Congress.  A House subcommittee just authorized subpoenas for Karl Rove and former White House adviser Harriet Miers.