A Story Unravels

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"PREPARE TO Withstand Political Upheaval," the attorney general's now-ousted chief of staff wrote in an e-mail to the White House as the administration prepared to fire a number of U.S. attorneys last year. About that, at least, D. Kyle Sampson was right. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, whose tenure in office has served only to deepen our conviction that he should never have been confirmed, has dismissed the firings as an "overblown personnel matter" and assured lawmakers that "I would never, ever make a change in a U.S. attorney position for political reasons." It's become clear, most recently and pointedly with the release of e-mails between Mr. Sampson and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers, that Mr. Gonzales's assurances can't be trusted. The stench of politics surrounding the firings grows daily: from the original, harebrained idea of the hapless Ms. Miers to can all 93 U.S. attorneys; to the involvement of the president's chief political adviser, Karl Rove; to the improper intervention of lawmakers and a senior congressional aide; to the misleading -- at best -- accounts from Mr. Gonzales and other top Justice Department officials.

"I am fully committed, as the administration's fully committed, to ensure that, with respect to every United States attorney position in this country, we will have a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed United States attorney," Mr. Gonzales assured the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty has also asserted that the administration, in firing the prosecutors, was not trying to abuse its new authority, slipped into the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, to name interim U.S. attorneys who could serve indefinitely without Senate confirmation. "The attorney general's appointment authority has not and will not be used to circumvent the confirmation process," Mr. McNulty testified. "All accusations in this regard are contrary to the clear factual record."

Mr. Sampson's e-mail messages to the White House belie those assertions. Although later plans envisioned confirmation, he initially urged the White House to use the new interim appointment authority, a move that he said would let the administration "give far less deference to home state senators and thereby get (1) our preferred person appointed and (2) do it far faster and more efficiently at less political costs to the White House." Mr. Sampson has resigned, supposedly because he failed to be forthcoming with his bosses about what happened. But if the top officials at Justice can't get a straight answer from their own aide, what are they doing running the department?

Now that the political costs are higher than the administration could have imagined, now that senior officials have squandered their claim to credibility, it is imperative that the entire story of the firings be uncovered. As we have said previously, the administration is entitled to prosecutors who reflect its policies and carry out its priorities. It is not entitled to treat federal prosecutors like political pawns -- nor is it entitled, any longer, to the benefit of the doubt about the propriety of its conduct.

Mr. Gonzales can make self-serving declarations about his belief in "accountability," as he did at a news conference yesterday; he can proclaim his plans to "ascertain what happened here . . . and take corrective actions." Nothing in his record gives any reason for confidence that anything will change in a department under his leadership.

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