“…As US attorney general (AG) Alberto Gonzales testifies before Congress this week, let’s understand the reasons why the dismissal of 8 well-respected US attorneys is a matter of grave public concern. The facts revealed thus far certainly suggest that the executive branch has intruded on the independence of the federal judiciary, partisan politics has subverted the rule of law at the Department of Justice, and, as a result, the legitimacy of the enforcement of federal law has been soiled…”
By William A. Cohn
As posted at Information Clearing House
As US attorney general (AG) Alberto Gonzales testifies before Congress this week, let’s understand the reasons why the dismissal of 8 well-respected US attorneys is a matter of grave public concern. The facts revealed thus far certainly suggest that the executive branch has intruded on the independence of the federal judiciary, partisan politics has subverted the rule of law at the Department of Justice, and, as a result, the legitimacy of the enforcement of federal law has been soiled.
The 93 US attorneys wield enormous power – to subpoena, indict, imprison, prosecute and possibly convict any person. They are indeed political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the President. But once in office impartiality is their core legal and ethical duty. A prosecutor must always address a case on its merits, and never with a political agenda. The facts which have come to light in recent weeks suggest that the 8 US attorneys were fired for being loyal to their oath of office rather than the White House, which raises obvious concerns about the 85 US attorneys still serving.
The AG is the chief law enforcement official of the country and head of the Dept. of Justice where the US attorneys work. An AG should embody the values of truth, integrity and justice, and serve as the gatekeeper of propriety, setting clear standards of conduct for the politicians as well as ordinary people. But Mr. Gonzales has utterly failed his duty and must now surely take the fall for the travesty of justice he hath wrought.
Why has this AG so violated the duties of his office? Because he’s acted as a hired gun, not a public servant. Mr. Gonzales’ public career has developed through his loyal service to G.W. Bush. When he became AG after serving as special counsel to the President, his client changed but his mindset and loyalties haven’t. The AG’s client is the people of the country and their Constitution and laws, not the President or his political party. Mr. Gonzales has had a clear conflict of interest because his loyalties to serving his former client, G.W. Bush, have absolutely interfered with fulfilling his duties as AG.
It seems the US attorneys faced political pressures to prosecute high-profile Democrats, not to bring charges against Republicans, to charge immigration violations and to bring indictments and win convictions on charges of voter fraud based on evidence which one appellate judge described as “beyond thin.” Such misconduct both destroys the lives of innocent people and lets criminality go unpunished. These intrusions on the independence of the federal prosecutors were made in order to hold on to power by gaining a partisan edge in national elections by means of an electoral strategy aimed at keeping Blacks and Hispanics away from the polls.
Although we do not yet know exactly what role, if any, the AG played, such no holds barred results-oriented conduct is wholly consistent with the record of Mr. Gonzales’ service as White House Counsel, where he provided legal cover for wrongheaded administration policies including torture, abductions, secret prisons and warrantless spying on US citizens. The patently pretextual reasons proffered for the firings suggest that the real reason is indeed impermissible. Here, the power grab by the executive branch involved using a little-noticed provision inserted into the renewed Patriot Act, allowing US attorneys to be appointed without need for Senate confirmation, which it intended to use to replace the respected US attorney in Arkansas, Bud Cummins, with Timothy Griffen, aide to Bush chief strategist Karl Rove, who lacks ample prosecutorial experience. Fortunately, the Senate woke up recently and revoked this provision which fundamentally altered the constitutional separation of powers.
A hired gun diminishes the law to a tool rather than a guide, something providing a plausible defense for the politicians to do what they want, not standards of what is permissible and what is not. And the Bush administration has shown itself to be ruthless in attacking those who question its tactics and assertions, as evinced in the recent trial and conviction of Scooter Libby, the former chief aide of vice-president Cheney. In the present matter, the essential lawlessness of those responsible to enforce the law includes the seeming cover-up of their wrongful actions – the violation of federal Presidential record-keeping laws by doing official business on private email accounts and the effort to destroy incriminating evidence by erasing emails relevant to the firings. A politicized Dept. of Justice may now be obstructing rather than upholding justice.
Thankfully, Congress is now demanding greater accountability of those holding power. Bush’s ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ offer to make officials available only for private, off-the-record interviews with Congress has rightfully been rejected. Public trust in government and the fundamentals of justice has been shaken. The mere appearance of a conflict of interest undermines public confidence in government. The investigation of the firing of the US attorneys thus demands transparency — testimony must be public and under oath. The US is a nation ruled by laws, not by men. Sunlight is indeed the best disinfectant.
More than ever, a strong protector of the virtues of American justice is needed. Over the weekend Mr. Gonzales wrote that he looks forward to putting this matter to rest and using his energies to fulfill the mission of the Department of Justice – to combat terrorism, child pornography and illicit drugs. I respectfully suggest that Mr. Gonzales has overlooked much of Justice’s proud history and mission. That Mr. Gonzales has offered nothing but lies and evasions thus far in response to Congressional queries about the firings of the US attorneys shows that he is clearly not fit to serve as AG.
William A. Cohn, a member of the California and International Bar Associations, is lecturer on law, ethics and logic at University of New York in Prague, and author, most recently, of “Heating-up: Confronting global climate change,” The New Presence, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring 2007