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We Need Our Justice Department Back

Lady Justice

Lady Justice from Wright State University web page

All the attention is now focused on Alberto Gonzales' upcoming appearance before Congress and whether the Attorney General can satisfactorily answer questions about his role in the forced resignations of eight US Attorneys. In his released statements he tells us, "I have nothing to hide and . . . I am committed to assuring the Congress and the American public that nothing improper occurred here." According to this WaPo article, it's as though Gonzales remaining as the nation's chief law enforcement officer depends on whether he can credibly explain contradictions between his own statements, or between his statements and those of his Chief of Staff or other former DoJ officials interviewed by the Judiciary Committee.

Judging from Dick Cheney's statement on Face the Nation — that Gonzales is the one who needs to explain himself — the White House seems content to focus attention on Gonzales' credibility. But the contradictory statements, while interesting and important, miss the much deeper scandal involving Cheney and Bush, and the more fundamental legal problem the country now faces from their collective behavior.

The disheartening and horrifying reality is that the United States does not have a functioning, credible Department of Justice that the American people can trust to ensure the laws are faithfully executed. Think about that. And we are missing a Department of Justice at precisely the moment in our history when we face probably the most corrupt and lawless Administration we have ever had. Faced with a stunning degree of corruption throughout the Adminstration, we need an honest, effective and completely trustworthy Justice Department, zealously but fairly investigating every facet of this corruption, ferreting out the lawbreakers and bringing them to justice.

We need our Justice Department back, both to prosecute those involved in this lawlessness and to send a strong signal that the corruption must end. But is there any knowledgeable observer, outside the 30 percenters, who honestly believes our current Attorney General and the political/religious cronies that surround him can be trusted with the task? Indeed, are we not faced with the national nightmare in which we suspect an extremely politicized Department, led by a man who can't seem to grasp that he is no longer the President's counsel, is at least an enabler, if not an outright party to the corruption?

If ever there was a case that cried out for a special/independent investigation and prosecutor, this is it. Why aren't the MSM pundits demanding it? Is the integrity of the Justice Department not important enough? Is the Attorney General's conflict of interest not obvious enough?

For six years, the Bush/Cheney regime has been a breeding ground for corruption, and not merely the type where people make/receive bribes in exchange for favorable government treatment, as in the Abramoff, Ney and Cunningham cases. We've also seen the equally insidious efforts to systematically undermine the programs and mandates of government across the board. Regulatory agencies with responsiblities for protecting public health, worker safety, public resources, the environment, the right to organize, the ability to obtain honest, effective government services or to be protected from abusive treatment by either government or the private sector have all seen their mandates and programs undermined. And their politically appointed legal counsel, reinforced by the anti-government political appointees at the Justice Department, have been used to justify these efforts. Instead of enforcing the law, the Justice Department under Rove's influence and Gonzales' "leadership" has too often become a weapon against the law and the people it was intended to protect, as the recent study on voter fraud revealed.

In the last two days, Christy and emptywheel at The Next Hurrah (and probably others) highlighted this interview in the Legal Times in which Daniel Metcalfe, the former director of the DoJ's Office of Information and Privacy, and a 30 year DoJ veteran, explained how pervasive the corruption of the Department of Justice has become under Alberto Gonzales and the Bush/Cheney/Rove regime. It's worth repeating the main points:

Since the day he arrived at the Department of Justice in February 2005, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has "shattered" the department's tradition of independence and politicized its operation more than any other attorney general in more than 30 years.

So says Daniel Metcalfe, a senior attorney at the department who retired in January, before the current controversy over the firing of U.S. Attorneys erupted. He views the episode as an "awful embarrassment" that has only worsened already-low morale at the department, especially among career attorneys. . . .

Q: You began in the Justice Department during the Watergate years. How would you rank Alberto Gonzales in terms of politicization of the department in comparison to the other AGs you have worked for?

A: Actually, I began earlier, in the first Nixon administration, as a college intern in 1971. But I was there again in the Watergate era, when I worked in part of the Attorney General's Office during my first year of law school in 1973-1974, and then continuously as a trial attorney and office director for nearly 30 years. That adds up to more than a dozen attorneys general, including Ed Meese as well as John Mitchell, and I used to think that they had politicized the department more than anyone could or should. But nothing compares to the past two years under Alberto Gonzales.

To be sure, he continued a trend of career/noncareer separation that began under John Ashcroft, yet even Ashcroft brought in political aides who in large measure were experienced in government functioning. Ashcroft's Justice Department appointees, with few exceptions, were not the type of people who caused you to wonder what they were doing there. They might not have been firm believers in the importance of government, but generally speaking, there was a very respectable level of competence (in some instances even exceptionally so) and a relatively strong dedication to quality government, as far as I could see.

Under Gonzales, though, almost immediately from the time of his arrival in February 2005, this changed quite noticeably. First, there was extraordinary turnover in the political ranks, including the majority of even Justice's highest-level appointees. It was reminiscent of the turnover from the second Reagan administration to the first Bush administration in 1989, only more so. Second, the atmosphere was palpably different, in ways both large and small. One need not have had to be terribly sophisticated to notice that when Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey left the department in August 2005 his departure was quite abrupt, and that his large farewell party was attended by neither Gonzales nor (as best as could be seen) anyone else on the AG's personal staff.

Third, and most significantly for present purposes, there was an almost immediate influx of young political aides beginning in the first half of 2005 (e.g., counsels to the AG, associate deputy attorneys general, deputy associate attorneys general, and deputy assistant attorneys general) whose inexperience in the processes of government was surpassed only by their evident disdain for it.

Having seen this firsthand in a range of different situations for nearly two years before I retired, I found it not at all surprising that the recent U.S. Attorney problems arose in the first place and then were so badly mishandled once they did.

I encourage everyone to read this interview. As Firedoglake's lhp noted in the comments yesterday, this is exactly the kind of courageous whistleblowing we have been expecting from honest, dedictated career public servants who are disgusted at what Gonzales has done to the DoJ. And it puts tomorrow's appearance by Alberto Gonzales in perspective. Many of you have already read the advance copy of Gonzales' prepared opening statement or at least the shorter version in his Sunday WaPo op-ed. We already know that his self-serving testimony does not begin to answer the questions put to him by the Committee.

But well beyond Gonzales' non-answers regarding his role in the US Attorney firings, we know that his testimony does not come close to responding to the more fundamental objections to his tenure. Why should the nation accept as its chief law enforcement officer a man who allowed and facilitated the political corruption of the Department of Justice? Why should the country accept a man who believes it's legally permissible for the US government to kidnap people, render them to foreign countries knowing they're likely to be tortured, or hold them indefinitely without trial (and torture them), and deny them the most fundamental of all rights — habeas corpus. Why tolerate a man who claims he's upholding the laws of the US by denying any of this happened, while asking our courts to shut down investigations on bogus state secret grounds, or manipulating indictments just to avoid judicial review? And let's not forget how quick Gonzales was to join in the political smearing of attorneys who represented Guantanamo detainees. Why have so many of his protege's been forced to resign, while so many decent, honorable attorneys resigned in disgust? These are not the attributes of a man who respects the rule of law or understands the obligations of an officer of the court. It is insulting that a man with such an abysmal, anti-law record would ask to remain our Attorney General.

We are starting to see more and more comparisons to Watergate and Nixon, and the parallels with that era's Attorneys General are also apt. We had the infamous John Mitchell, who went to jail, but we also had men who resigned rather than carry out WH orders that appeared to obstruct justice. Where would Alberto Gonzales fall on that scale? I think we know.

Josh Marshall and Christy noted the Albuquerque Journal report suggesting that Gonzales may have initially opposed the forced resignation of David Iglesias, but he relented when he was overruled at the White House, either by Rove or the President himself, though Josh notes the WH previously denied any direction. [edited per ew] If Gonzales was directed, or at least bowed to pressure he knew was there, then he had his Watergate/Saturday-Night Massacre moment, but instead of emerging as a principled hero for refusing to fire a capable prosecutor, he revealed himself to be a weak and toady Bork.

When the Attorney General, whose job is to shield the administration of justice from political interference, buckles that easily, and sticks around to help implement the further politicization of the rule of law, it's a clear sign that he does not have the integrity and strength to be the nation's Attorney General, and nothing he could possibly say at Tuesday's hearing can change that. It's time for Gonzales to resign. And his successor should be a person of absolute independence and integrity and given the mandate to clean house and restore the Department of Justice.

UPDATE: Firedoglake's lhp finds (comment 40) another article of a career DoJ attorney who explains the corruption that occurred in the Civil Rights Division.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley