Right the Ship or Hold the Course?

Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey has refused to delve into the department scandals that preceded him.
Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey has refused to delve into the department scandals that preceded him. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

From a book-lined den on the fifth floor of the Justice Department, the attorney general is watching the clock.

Tenure, after all, is short for Michael B. Mukasey, a retired federal judge who has just six more months to restore confidence in a department battered by allegations of improper political meddling before time runs out on the Bush administration.

Mukasey is one of several elder statesman who accepted the president's request to rejoin government late in the second term, only to confront increasingly intense political battles and the detritus left by their predecessors. Yet, unlike Michael Hayden at the CIA and Robert M. Gates at the Defense Department, Mukasey has complicated his task with his steadfast refusal to reopen old wounds and purge the ranks of his roiled department.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) recently appraised Mukasey as "content to serve as a caretaker for the regime of excessive executive power established by the Bush administration."

As Democratic lawmakers and White House officials tangle over how actively investigators should explore the past, the attorney general generally has sided with the administration and declined to open criminal probes on matters that predate him.

In the past month, Mukasey has rejected requests to name a special prosecutor to examine whether Cabinet officials committed war crimes when they approved harsh interrogation tactics for terrorism suspects. He refused to take a second look at a public corruption case that 52 bipartisan state attorneys general say smacks of selective prosecution. He refrained from characterizing the department he joined last November as torn apart by partisan discord even though more than a dozen officials, including his forerunner, Alberto R. Gonzales, departed amid a politically charged firing scandal.

Instead, the cautious 66-year-old is leaving those judgments to appeals courts and internal watchdogs and is focusing on keeping the Justice Department out of the headlines and putting the national security apparatus in order on his way out the door. His performance will be on display again Wednesday, during what lawmakers say could be Mukasey's final congressional appearance.

Mukasey's posture has infuriated critics who want to ensure that the department is free from partisanship, and it frustrates even some of his sponsors, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who called his answers to oversight questions last week "very disappointing."

But Mukasey appears to be judging himself on a short list of his own criteria. They include passage earlier this month of an overhaul to a "vital" eavesdropping law, along with developing a soon-to-be-released plan for handling the legal claims raised by detainees at the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and guidelines for how the FBI conducts terrorism investigations.

The subject hits close to home for a man who led the federal courthouse in Manhattan in the hectic months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and who presided over cases involving infamous defendants such as Omar Abdel Rahman, also known the blind sheik. Abdel Rahman led a militant group responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and other plots in New York and around the world. Threats over the judge's handling of that case prompted a decade of intense security by a special team of U.S. marshals that trailed him even while he walked his dog.

A compact man whose soft voice and owlish spectacles mask a piercing wit, Mukasey recently referred to al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, whose case crossed his desk when he was a U.S. district court judge, as "one of my alumni."

"He wants to make sure that America is in a position where it can protect itself against terrorism, that the FBI is making the changes it needs to make," said longtime friend and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. "And I think he wants to make sure the Justice Department is operating in the independent way it ought to operate."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company