As Monica Goodling, a key player in the United States attorney scandal, prepares to testify
before Congress on Wednesday, the administration’s strategy is clear. It has offered up implausible excuses,
hidden the most damaging evidence and feigned memory lapses, while hoping that the public’s attention moves on.
But this scandal is too important for the public or Congress to move on. This story should not end until
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is gone, and the serious damage that has been done to the
Justice Department is repaired.
The Justice Department is no ordinary agency. Its 93 United States attorney offices, scattered across the country,
prosecute federal crimes ranging from public corruption to terrorism. These prosecutors have enormous power:
they can wiretap people’s homes, seize property and put people in jail for life. They can destroy businesses,
and affect the outcomes of elections. It has always been understood that although they are appointed by a president,
usually from his own party, once in office they must operate in a nonpartisan way, and be insulated from outside pressures.
This understanding has badly broken down. It is now clear that United States attorneys were pressured to act in
the interests of the Republican Party, and lost their job if they failed to do so. The firing offenses of the nine prosecutors
who were purged last year were that they would not indict Democrats, they investigated important Republicans,
or they would not try to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning groups with baseless election fraud cases.
The degree of partisanship in the department is shocking. A study by two professors, Donald Shields of the
University of Missouri at St. Louis and John Cragan of Illinois State University, found that the Bush Justice
Department has investigated Democratic officeholders and office seekers about four times as often as Republican ones.
It is hard not to see the fingerprints of Karl Rove. A disproportionate number of the prosecutors pushed out,
or considered for dismissal, were in swing states. The main reason for the purge —
apart from hobbling a California investigation that has already put one Republican congressman in jail —
appears to have been an attempt to tip states like Missouri and Washington to Republican candidates for
House, Senate, governor and president.
Justice Department headquarters has become deeply partisan. Young operatives like Ms. Goodling were
apparently allowed to hire and promote based on party membership. Political appointees cleared the
way for laws designed to disenfranchise minority voters, and brought litigation to remove Democratic-leaning
voters from the rolls.
The department’s integrity lies in tatters. As a result of the purge, Tim Griffin, a Republican operative
and Karl Rove protégé, was installed as the top federal prosecutor in eastern Arkansas. Rachel Paulose,
a 33-year-old Republican activist with thin prosecutorial experience, was assigned to Minnesota.
If either indicted a prominent Democrat tomorrow, everyone would believe it was a political hit.
Congress has to save the Justice Department, something President Bush shows no interest in doing.
It should pass a resolution of “no confidence” in Mr. Gonzales, and push for his removal.
But it also needs to insist on new leadership that will restore the department’s traditions of professionalism
and impartiality, and re-establish that in the United States, the legal system does not work to advance
the interests of a political party.
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