Help Wanted

Monday, March 19, 2007

PRESIDENT BUSH says that he has confidence in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales; if so, he doesn't appear to have much company. We didn't think that Mr. Gonzales merited confirmation, and he hasn't proved us wrong. So, though admittedly they haven't asked for our advice, we offer here the chief qualities that the president and his advisers should be seeking in a new attorney general:

Independence. Of all Mr. Gonzales' faults, the biggest may be that he is too closely identified with the White House. His promises at his confirmation hearing notwithstanding, he seems still to view himself as the president's lawyer, not the nation's chief law enforcement officer. As attorney general, he has served the same role of presidential enabler that he did as White House counsel, reinforcing the worst instincts of Mr. Bush and his aides rather than putting brakes on them. The president is entitled to an attorney general who shares his ideology; he is entitled to an attorney general he trusts. But the country is entitled to an attorney general who can demonstrably operate at some political distance from the White House.

Loyalty to the rule of law. Mr. Gonzales fell short in this regard, a flaw intrinsically linked to his lack of independence. He has, to be blunt, disregarded his duty to uphold the law and the Constitution and, instead, helped the administration twist statutes and constitutional protections to achieve its desired end. The temptations, in the course of a struggle as amorphous as the war on terrorism, are to disregard or discount civil liberties in favor of stretching legal authorities and dangerously expanding executive power. From the torture memo to the national security letters, Mr. Gonzales has given way to these temptations. The next attorney general should envision his or her role in part as mitigating, not reinforcing, this tendency.

Managerial skill. Mr. Gonzales' own description of his stewardship of the department demonstrates his shortcomings in this regard. His account of his hands-off approach to the replacement of U.S. attorneys was unsettling; this is the kind of decision in which an attorney general ought to be immersed. A similar lack of attention was reflected in the fiasco of the FBI's misuse of its newly expanded authority to issue national security letters to obtain information without court orders. An attorney general must oversee an FBI that appears institutionally resistant to responsible management.

Confidence of Congress. Mr. Gonzales's stinginess with information and seeming unfamiliarity with the goings-on in his department had squandered what trust he had with lawmakers even before the U.S. attorneys episode, in which he acknowledges having provided "incomplete" information. To a great extent, a nominee who possesses and demonstrates the first three qualities will enjoy the fourth as well. Congress, and the country, want to see a steadier hand in charge at the Justice Department.

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