There’s been more than a little political posturing over the latest Bush-administration scandal, stemming from the dismissal of eight US attorneys for reasons that no one in the Department of Justice (DOJ) can explain with a straight story or a straight face. The DOJ tried to float a claim that the personnel decisions were merit-based, but the record showed that to be a lie — particularly in the case of (now former) New Mexico US attorney David Iglesias, who may have been pressured by Republican Senator Pete Domenici to indict Democratic pols before the 2006 midterm elections. And so the waffling has begun, with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claiming he didn’t know of the plan. “We never had a discussion about where things stood,” said the incompetent who got his job because he proved to be a loyal lap dog in shadowing George W. Bush’s political career from Texas to Washington.
That said, Congress knows that US attorneys, unlike the courtroom prosecutors who serve under them, have no job security and can be dismissed at the whim of an administration. (Though it is highly unusual for dismissals to come in the middle of a presidential term). Still, politics is politics, so if the DOJ decides to respond to severe political criticism, it would be wise to tell the truth or else suffer the consequences that generations of federal prosecutors’ hapless targets have encountered: if they can’t get you for the initial offense, they’ll get you for the cover-up. Scooter Libby is just the latest to learn what one might call “the Martha Stewart” lesson — those who have almost certainly committed no crime end up being prosecuted for lying about it.
There are plenty of sinecures in any presidential administration for sycophants, but the attorney general should not hold one of them. Gonzales proved his legal incompetence long ago when he tried to justify the legality of the administration’s secret torture and surveillance programs. Now, he has reinforced the suspicions of critics who saw his excessive loyalty to Bush, and his willingness to twist his advice to suit what the chief wants to hear, as serious flaws in the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
Gonzales should resign — in fact, he may have by the time this week’s Phoenix hits the stands. Senator Pete Domenici’s conduct, however, could constitute anything from an ethical breach subject to Senate discipline to obstruction of justice worthy of a grand-jury investigation.
As for the congressional Democrats, they have bigger fish to fry than what is essentially a personnel dispute. As soon as Gonzales has quit, they should move on to bigger problems. The writ of habeas corpus, for one, must be restored. And the administration’s most egregious policies — including those that make everything a citizen says or does fodder for government snoops, but allow the government to invoke “national security” whenever the news media seek to probe the executive branch — must be reversed. If, as Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” then Congress has a lot of cloud cover to disperse.