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Candor? Call the Special Prosecutor!

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Monica Goodling is not my kind of gal. A graduate of two schools not known for partying (Messiah College and Pat Robertson's Regent University Law School), she would not be my ideal seatmate on a long airplane flight. But for vowing to take the Fifth in the ongoing probe of why and how eight U.S. attorneys were fired, I offer her my hearty congratulations. She knows that in Washington, free speech can cost you a fortune in legal fees.

The standard question about Goodling is: What is she hiding? After all, until her resignation last week, Goodling was the senior counselor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his liaison to the White House. She was at the center of the White House's purge of non-party party people (a pseudo-Stalinist term coined for this occasion) and so she must be hiding something. Maybe.

More likely, Goodling's problem is probably not what she's done but what she might do. If she testifies before Congress, swears to tell the truth and all of that, she will produce a record -- a transcript -- that can be used against her. If a subsequent witness later on has a different memory of what transpired, then the bloodcurdling cry of "special prosecutor" will once again be heard in the land. Already, in fact, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has raised that possibility. In the offices of U.S. attorneys everywhere, ambitious prosecutors are probably checking The Post's real estate section.

No lawyer is going to be thrilled about letting a client testify in today's political environment. Remember, please, that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was not convicted of the crime that the special prosecutor was appointed to find -- who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame -- but of lying to a grand jury. In fact, the compulsively compulsive Patrick Fitzgerald not only knew early on who the leaker was but also that no law had been violated. No matter. Fitzgerald valiantly persisted, jailing Judith Miller of the New York Times for refusing to reveal her sources and, in the end, nailing Libby. It was a magnificent victory, proving once again that there is nothing more dangerous to the republic than a special prosecutor with money to spend.

The fact remains that ordinary politics -- leaking, sniping, lying, cheating, exaggerating and other forms of PG entertainment -- have been so thoroughly criminalized that only a fool would appear before Congress without attempting to bargain for immunity by first invoking the Fifth Amendment. After all, it is a permissible exaggeration to say that in recent years more senior federal officials have had sit-downs with prosecutors than have members of the Gambino family.

Recall: A president of the United States was impeached for lying about something that was not a crime. Recall: the zealous special prosecutors wading through Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate and even gates that never became public. Recall: the many White House aides who had to hire criminal lawyers. Recall: the investigation by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh (Iran-contra), who got convictions of several high-level officials, many of them later pardoned.

Recall, with what should be deep shame, that some of these special prosecutors were cheered on by liberals who are supposed to feel tenderly about civil liberties (even about journalists whose work they don't like) or, if you will, conservatives who are supposed to be on alert for any abuse of government power. Now, only a fool would accept a juicy federal appointment and not keep the home number of a criminal lawyer on speed dial.

May I suggest that Gonzales quit and go back to Texas where, I'm sure, the pace of executions is lagging without him. May I suggest, further, that he and Karl Rove and, of course, George W. Bush have unforgivably politicized the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys -- and Congress is not only right in looking into this but also has an absolute obligation to do so. May I suggest also that Sen. Pete Domenici go on Don Imus's radio show so that the two of them can have a contest on who is stupider -- Domenici for pressuring New Mexico's U.S. attorney or Imus for his clearly racist remarks. I might even listen.

In the end, though, some thought has to be given to why Monica Goodling feels obligated to take the Fifth rather than merely telling Congress what happened in the AG's office. She's no criminal -- but what could happen to her surely is.

cohenr@washpost.com


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