Playing presidential politics

Posted: Mar 23, 2007 2:10 PM
Playing presidential politics

Like the police inspector in “Casablanca,” many in our nation’s capital seem shocked -- shocked! to discover that politics is being practiced here. Consider the case of the fired U.S. attorneys.

Last year the Bush administration decided to remove eight of our country’s 93 U.S. attorneys. Nothing wrong with that. Any president has “broad discretion to replace political appointees throughout the government, including U.S. attorneys,” as President Bush explained. “The Justice Department, with the approval of the White House, believed new leadership in these positions would better serve our country.”

That should be the end of it. But it’s never that simple.

“I want to find out how much politics played a part in these firings of these U.S. attorneys,” Sen. Pat Leahy, the Democrat chair of the Judiciary Committee, told NPR. Leahy admits the administration is within its rights to fire the attorneys, but still insists he’ll get to the bottom of this. “Of course they serve at the pleasure of the president, but they have to be independent in their prosecution. Otherwise, the next president, whoever he or she might be, might be tempted to do the same thing.”

Well, this president is actually doing far less than what the last president did.

In 1993, new President Bill Clinton fired all 93 U.S. attorneys. As The New York Times editorial page noted at the time, “Any hope that the Clinton Administration would operate a Justice Department free of political taint -- or even the appearance of political taint -- grew dim yesterday when the White House confirmed that it would dismiss the U.S. Attorney investigating one of its chief congressional allies.”

Politics, it seems always will figure into the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys. The only problem here is a communication problem.

The administration tried to explain its actions to Congress -- but even trying to do so was a mistake. After all, nobody’s guaranteed a job (except civil service workers and tenured college professors). If my boss fires me tomorrow, I’ll quietly clean out my desk. In this case, the White House decided to fire the attorneys, so they’re fired. Attempting to explain why is unnecessary and ends up being counterproductive.

But U.S. attorneys aren’t the only supposed victims of politics. Enter the lovely Valerie Plame, a former CIA operative who testified before a House committee on March 16.

“Politics and ideology must be stripped completely from our intelligence services or the consequences will be even more severe than they have been and our country placed in even greater danger,” Plame self-righteously announced. She claims that, “in the course of the trial of Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, I was shocked by the evidence that emerged. My name and identity were carelessly and recklessly abused by senior government officials in both the White House and the State Department. It was a terrible irony that administration officials were the ones who destroyed my cover.” It all sounds pretty sinister. But let’s remember that Libby wasn’t on trial for exposing Plame. He was convicted of perjury, basically because his story disagreed with that told by reporters.

The only genuinely shocking news from the trial is that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald knew all along that the leaker was former State Department official Richard Armitage. Yet Armitage hasn’t been charged with anything, and apparently won’t be. “I do not expect to file any further charges,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re all going back to our day jobs.”

Also, while Plame decries politics, let’s keep in mind that she and her husband, Joe Wilson, have been playing politics themselves.

They attended a breakfast sponsored by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee in early 2003. What on earth was a supposedly undercover operative doing at such a partisan gathering? Also, let’s recall that her husband wrote a misleading op-ed in The New York Times aimed at discrediting the Bush administration. That piece, titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” was debunked by a Senate Intelligence panel in 2004.

Intelligence gathering should indeed be beyond politics. But in this case it was the operatives who made intelligence into a political football.

If lawmakers really want to put politics aside, they should forget about Valerie Plame and U.S. attorneys and pass the emergency-spending bill to fund our military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. That bill’s been larded with pork (millions for drought relief, peanut storage, etc.) and is sure to be vetoed because it insists all combat troops must exit Iraq by August 2008.

So while they may say they “support the troops,” for some lawmakers it’s apparently more important to score political points than to fund our military. “That’s Washington, D.C., for you. You know, there a lot of politics in this town,” President Bush told reporters recently. That’s for sure. And about all the wrong things.