THE JUSTICE Department is taking a good first step toward restoring its integrity by revamping an internal policy that fueled the perception that it had become inappropriately politicized. The policy regulates who at Justice may speak with the White House about ongoing criminal and civil law enforcement cases. During the tenures of Attorneys General John D. Ashcroft and Alberto R. Gonzales, dozens of department employees were authorized to speak with hundreds of White House personnel about such matters. Frequent contacts, along with controversies involving the firing of U.S. attorneys and the alleged politicization of other programs at Justice, reinforced the belief that politics too often drove law enforcement and legal decisions that should have been free from partisan considerations.
Justice is now changing the policy so that only the very top leadership of the department would be permitted to speak about pending law enforcement matters with top White House officials, including the president, vice president and White House counsel. (Communications between White House and Justice officials concerning legislative proposals, budget concerns and a whole host of other issues would not be affected.) The new policy, which is consistent with the approach taken by the Clinton administration, is still being hashed out and will not be finalized until a new attorney general is sworn in. Attorney general nominee Michael B. Mukasey has told senators in private meetings that he favors curtailing such contacts and would consider unauthorized contact to be a firing offense.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has introduced legislation to require the department to report every six months on contacts with the White House that involve someone other than a top official. Mr. Whitehouse has backed off his original and possibly unconstitutional proposal, which would have dictated which Justice Department and White House officials would be permitted to discuss ongoing law enforcement matters. But even the new bill is unnecessary and burdensome. What is needed is for Justice to police itself on this front. The Department has shown its willingness to do so -- without legislation.