Inexcusable mistakes were made

Posted: Mar 18, 2007 12:01 AM
Inexcusable mistakes were made

By his own lights, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should resign. As Gonzales wrote in USA Today last week, he asked seven U.S. attorneys to resign in December -- he left out an eighth, who was invited to resign earlier and replaced by former Karl Rove aide Tim Griffin -- for reasons that were "performance-related" and because they "simply lost my confidence." By that standard, it is time for Gonzales to go.

It is hard to imagine how the Bushies could have bungled the situation more -- considering how avoidable this scandal was.

Bush has a right to fire any U.S. attorney, as all serve at the pleasure of the president. If the Bushies simply had announced that they pushed out the eight federal prosecutors after they had served their four-year terms for their own reasons, they would have been at least within their political rights -- although they could hardly complain if critics questioned whether the personnel changes represented a political purge.

Didn't the fair-haired boys on Team Bush learn anything from Travelgate -- the brouhaha that followed when the Clinton adminstration fired travel office staffers in 1993? Clintonia smeared travel staffers rather than admit the administration simply wanted to replace them with patronage hires. For no good reason, the Bushies followed the textbook case on how not to replace people.

Many Democrats argue that Team Bush fired some of the U.S. attorneys -- most notably New Mexico's David Iglesias and San Diego's Carol Lam -- for political reasons. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., had complained that Iglesias was slow in going after a corruption case involving Democrats, while Lam had successfully prosecuted GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham on bribery charges. The adminstration's lack of candor on these firings bolsters critics' suspicions. I now see why Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein was adamant in investigating the issue.

It doesn't help that top Bush aides seemed to see the U.S. Department of Justice as their toy -- that they didn't have to share.

Thus, then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers suggested in early 2005 that the White House consider firing all 93 U.S. attorneys. (A newly released White House memo shows that Rove entertained the idea in January 2005.) The White House has suggested that some prosecutors were failing to take up immigration and voter-fraud cases -- and any president has the right to direct staff to focus on his priorities. But getting rid of all the top prosecutors would have hindered all federal casework.

As former Gonzales Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson wrote to Miers, "There are practical obstacles to removing and replacing U.S. attorneys." Such as, "Wholesale removal of U.S. attorneys would cause a significant disruption to the work of the Department of Justice." And replacing them would be really, really messy.

Sampson resigned last Monday, after the Justice Department released memos that showed how he reviewed all 93 U.S. attorneys based on whether they were effective prosecutors who "exhibited loyalty" or "ineffectual managers" who "chafed against administration initiatives."

If Gonzales had been forthcoming early on, he could have sold this story: Flush with victory in 2004, some overeager Bush aides wanted to ax all U.S. attorneys. Cooler heads prevailed. After a full review, the Department of Justice office decided to make some changes. The administration rewarded Griffin and replaced some bad eggs (like San Francisco prosecutor Kevin Ryan, whose performance reviews found high office turnover and low morale).

White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo said she thinks it important for the public to remember that the White House didn't act on bad political advice. "The idea to replace all 93 U.S. attorneys was not pursued. DOJ did an evaluation, based on policy and performance considerations, which was absolutely appropriate," she told me.

But it is not enough for President Bush to mumble, "Mistakes were made." Right now, U.S. troops in Iraq need Bush to sell his surge policy to the public. The president has to safeguard his credibility. He has to let Gonzales go. America wants to see a White House that puts performance before loyalty.