Memo to Gonzales

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 16, 2007

Was it arrogance or ignorance that led the Bush administration to think it could pull off what looks, walks and quacks like a transparently political decision to fire those eight U.S. attorneys? A good deal of both, I'm guessing.

Actually, I take that back. No guesswork is needed.

Arrogance has been the most consistent hallmark of George W. Bush's presidency. His administration's simple philosophy of government has been consistent: We can do any damn thing we want.

We can invade Iraq. We can blow off the Geneva Conventions. We can listen to your private phone calls, Mr. and Ms. America, and we can read your private e-mails, too. We can arrest anybody we want and hold them as long as we want, and we don't even have to tell them why, much less file formal charges or hold a trial. We can even defy the laws of science -- or at least ignore the ones that annoy us, such as that whole "greenhouse effect" thing. We can use the troops for photo ops when they come back from war grievously wounded and then basically forget about them.

And we don't have to explain ourselves, either. The nerve of anyone to even ask us. Don't you people understand that asking impertinent questions of the White House is exactly what Osama bin Laden wants you to do?

Okay, but even given this kind of world-class arrogance, it's still pretty amazing that barely a month after the nation took a two-by-four to the administration's head in November's midterm election -- delivering a not-so-gentle reminder that the president works for us, not vice versa -- the White House still plowed ahead with a long-brewing plot to fire a few designated federal prosecutors who couldn't seem to get with the "any damn thing we want" program.

Just to be clear, this kind of selective dismissal of a group of U.S. attorneys is highly unusual. It's bad enough that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales misled Congress about the firings; the specific truths his falsehoods obscured -- that the White House was involved in the firings and that partisan political motivations may have been involved -- are much worse.

We know from e-mail messages -- why do people put this stuff in e-mail, which has the half-life of nuclear waste? -- that political "loyalty" to the White House was a factor in deciding which prosecutors to fire. We also know that the White House passed along to the Justice Department the complaints of Republicans in Congress and other party pooh-bahs that allegations of voter fraud against Democrats were not being pursued aggressively enough.

All that adds up to arrogance. Here's where the ignorance comes in: Gonzales accepts "responsibility" without accepting the blame that comes with it, since he could hardly be expected to know what was going on in the whole vast Justice Department.

I've got to admit, I felt a twinge of sympathy for Gonzales when, bravely and cluelessly, he faced the television cameras Tuesday and vowed to find out why he had given Congress categorical assurances that were not remotely true. He bears the burden of being the first Latino attorney general -- the first member of the nation's largest minority to hold such a senior position in the U.S. government. I have a sense of what that must mean to him, a sense of why he is so determined not to resign, why he made a point of declaring that he didn't get where he is by giving up.

But it was just a twinge. Then I remembered that Gonzales was the author of the notorious "torture memo" that greenlighted interrogation techniques for war-on-terrorism detainees that are designed to induce excruciating physical and psychological pain. Gonzales wrote of a "new paradigm" in which there is no conflict between American values and "inhuman treatment" of prisoners.

Determined to keep his job, Gonzales said he will leave no stone unturned in discovering why he said what he said to Congress about the U.S. attorney firings. I've got an idea: He can order the FBI to issue a " national security letter" and then rummage through his private communications on an unlawful fishing expedition, as has apparently happened to many thousands of Americans -- on Gonzales's watch.

If that fails, Gonzales can declare himself an enemy combatant, have himself whisked away in the dead of night to some secret prison and allow himself to be "waterboarded" until he finally sputters out the truth.

If the man is willing to practice what he preaches, he can stay. Otherwise, he's got to go.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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