Whether Alberto Gonzales clears out his desk now or in a month is a technicality. His tenure as US Attorney General is over. The release in late March of a document that places him at a meeting to discuss the dismissal of US Attorneys–contradicting his earlier statements that he never participated in such conversations–adds significantly to the evidence that Gonzales lied about his involvement in the firings and their political motivation. At this writing, at least two Republican senators are openly calling for Gonzales’s resignation. It is impossible to imagine his regaining the trust of Congress and the respect of Justice Department professionals.
The US Attorneys scandal is at once particular to the Justice Department and part of a much broader picture. The narrow scandal–the subject of scheduled testimony by Gonzales scapegoat Kyle Sampson and of Senate subpoenas to top White House staff–is bad enough: The allegation that Gonzales fired US Attorneys who would not elevate politics above professionalism goes to the heart of public safety and the rule of law. By itself, this scandal should finish not just Gonzales but Karl Rove, Bush’s top political operative, and Harriet Miers, his former White House counsel, and anyone else involved. They all deserve investigation, and probably indictments.
But facts keep turning up, like jigsaw-puzzle pieces under the living-room couch, that fit into that even more alarming picture. In this bigger frame, the US Attorneys are but one example of how the Administration has undermined professionals and career civil servants throughout the federal bureaucracy. In these pages last fall, investigative journalist Dan Zegart detailed Bush team efforts to extend direct political control not only at the Justice Department but also deep into agencies where the White House has strong policy interests, such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department [see “The Gutting of the Civil Service,” November 20]. In virtually every agency, Bush political appointees have undermined experts’ rulings and recommendations on matters including drug safety, civil rights, tobacco litigation and air pollution enforcement while pushing a political agenda. And those efforts continue up to the present; the Washington Post reported on March 26 that witnesses have told Congressional investigators that the chief of the General Services Administration and a deputy in Rove’s office joined in a late-January videoconference to discuss ways to help Republican candidates in the next elections.
In light of this pattern, cast a glance back from the US Attorneys scandal through Gonzales’s tenure as AG and White House counsel. Look back from the prosecutors he fired to the memos he commissioned on the Geneva Conventions and Guantánamo. Just as Gonzales once tried to redefine torture as not torture, he now tries to define political firings as not political and not firings. In this picture Gonzales is not merely a deferential retainer or simply serving a controversial theory of presidential power; he is the active agent of a campaign to distort and subvert the purposes of the Justice Department and the plain language of federal statutes.
It’s time to retire the bromide that Gonzales survives as Attorney General because of President Bush’s loyalty to subordinates. The Gonzales Eight were loyal–loyal officers of the Constitution. Their firings, facilitated by the President’s two closest legal advisers and his chief political adviser, fit into a pattern of government agencies turned on their heads; of presidential powers abused in the service of political ambition; of public interest, civil rights and law itself made subordinate to the creation of a permanent GOP patronage machine. This is slavishness to a party and its supporters, not loyalty to the country and its citizens.