As William Shakespeare proclaimed in Richard II, the most valued earthly treasure capable of being possessed by a man is a “spotless reputation.” As true as this axiom is for an individual person, it is even more apt for a lawyer; and infinitely more so for a powerful government agency populated with lawyers and clothed with the authority to reduce a man’s liberty to nil. Thus is the tragedy of loss of reputation and credibility that recently has befallen the Department of Justice in this second term for President Barack Obama.
Eric Holder was a man of high reputation when he was sworn in as our nation’s 82nd Attorney General in February 2009. However, the unraveling of credibility that has stretched to the highest reaches of the once-vaunted Department of Justice, has now so weakened Holder that resignation is the only honorable and timely option.
The depth to which the Department’s prestige has fallen in the public eye was evident last week, when many of the major news outlets boycotted a special, “off-the-record” meeting called by the Attorney General with members of the press to discuss the particulars of the Department’s investigations of reporters.
While the current scandals rocking the nation’s Capital – from systemic abuse of citizens’ rights by the Internal Revenue Service, to violation of constitutional rights by the Justice Department -- capture media headlines, the downward spiral of credibility at Justice actually began more than two years ago, with the “Fast and Furious” gun-running debacle.
“Operation Fast and Furious” was the ill-advised program concocted and conducted in Arizona by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), a component of the Justice Department, which sanctioned the selling of thousands of firearms to known and suspected Mexican criminal elements. Not surprisingly – at least to those who understand the nature of criminals – many of those firearms found their way into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, and in at least one known instance, into the hands of individuals involved directly in the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Yet, rather than do what the Department of Justice should have done – immediately, thoroughly and transparently investigate and punish those field agents and supervisors who perpetrated such an absurd operation – the government’s top lawyers did what almost always and predictably gets public officials in trouble – they fumbled and stonewalled.
First, many in the Department of Justice claimed ignorance in this tragic failure of common sense and accountability. The scandal then was exacerbated by the Attorney General stonewalling congressional investigators. Mr. Holder eventually was found in contempt for his refusal to obey subpoenas for DOJ internal documents that could possibly have exposed a White House cover-up. This was an historic and embarrassing “first” in American history – the first time a sitting cabinet member was held in contempt of Congress. And it was not just any cabinet officer – it was the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
It was here that the American public began to see that the very department tasked with upholding the law and holding government officials accountable, was immersed in the same sort of systemic shenanigans it was supposed to be fighting.
Now, we are in the midst of numerous congressional investigations of federal officials, lawyers and agents improperly investigating members of the news media. We see mounting evidence the IRS violated laws and regulations, even as its own inspector general claims, just like Sgt. Shultz in “Hogan’s Heroes,” to have “seen nothing” illegal.
And where is the Department of Justice amidst all this chicanery? Defending itself against charges of, at best incompetence and, at worst, misleading congressional investigators and members of Congress directly.
The American people may rightly wonder how the one agency whose job it is to uphold the law and to investigate and punish wrongdoing, can credibly investigate serious misdeeds committed by high officials in other agencies – notably the IRS – when its top officials appear unwilling or incapable of policing their own house.
At the very moment America needs a Justice Department able to use its awesome power to protect the citizenry from systemic abuse by the government, we have a Department of Justice enmeshed in highly suspect actions itself, and lacking the moral authority to do its job.
What began more than two years ago as a law enforcement operation gone seriously awry, has morphed into the “Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight;” except this isn’t a movie. This is the real world. This is America. This is not some banana republic in which the Ministry of Justice serves first and foremost to protect its “maximum leader” and those who operate at his whim.
To salvage what is left of his tattered reputation, and to restore true meaning to the motto adorning the seal of the Department of Justice, “who prosecutes on behalf of justice” rather than “who protects on behalf of the government,” the time has come for Attorney General Holder to step down.