Time to Go, Mr. Gonzales

Alberto Gonzales at the Justice Department yesterday.
Alberto Gonzales at the Justice Department yesterday. (By Stephanie Kuykendal -- Bloomberg News)
By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"I believe in accountability," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales proclaimed yesterday at a news conference that was a self-serving masterpiece of passive voice and unpersuasive platitudes. "Like every CEO of a major organization, I am responsible for what happens at the Department of Justice. I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility. And my pledge to the American people is to find out what went wrong here, to access accountability and to make improvements so that the mistakes that occurred in this instance do not occur again in the future."

Is there anyone left -- seriously, is there a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- who has confidence in Gonzales's capacity to fix this mess? Is there anyone who accepts Gonzales's CEO analogy -- and thinks that a sentient board of directors wouldn't have fired him long ago?

Let's assume Gonzales's good faith: that he truly is upset about what happened on his watch, just as he was upset last week about the FBI's cavalier mishandling of its authority to issue "national security letters," and wants to make things right.

There is no reason to believe that he is capable of making a change. The portrait of the Gonzales Justice Department that emerges from the e-mails released yesterday, and from the attorney general's own comments, is of an agency overseen by an absentee landlord, chronically clueless about what's happening around him.

This is a man whose memory is so foggy that George W. Bush -- not exactly Mr. Detail -- has a sharper recollection of their conversations than the attorney general does. The president, according to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, told Gonzales that Republicans were complaining about prosecutors failing to aggressively pursue voter fraud. Gonzales doesn't recall the conversation.

I'm sorry, is there somebody he's paying more attention to than the president of the United States?

At his I'm-accountable-but-I-didn't-know-anything news conference yesterday, Gonzales said he knew the White House had suggested canning all 93 U.S. attorneys, rejected that idea and then left things to his chief of staff. "I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on," he said. "That's basically what I knew as the attorney general."

How reassuring. But, a reporter asked, how could it be that his chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, was figuring out "which U.S. attorneys to . . . let go and you not know?"

Answer: "Well, again as -- I accept responsibility for whatever happens here in this department. But I have 110,000 working in the department. Obviously, there are going to be decisions made that I'm not aware of all the time."

Translation: "I'm going to tell you I'm responsible, because that's what they tell me I have to say. But of course I'm not. It's all Kyle Sampson's fault. I'm hoping that if I say I'm accountable often enough, no one will actually hold me accountable."

Ousting a group of top federal prosecutors isn't some minor, inconsequential act. It's the sort of thing that a responsible attorney general would be deeply immersed in. Gonzales's depiction of his own marginality is the most damning evidence of his unfitness for the job.

The precise non-mistake mistake that Gonzales copped to yesterday was sharing "incomplete" -- this is Gonzales-speak for wrong -- information with Congress. Think about this: Gonzales first testified about the U.S. attorney firings on Jan. 19. His No. 2, Paul McNulty, testified on Feb. 6. Assistant Attorney General William Moschella testified March 6.

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