WASHINGTON -- If there is one federal agency that should always be squeaky clean, it is the Justice Department.
But under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the nation's chief law enforcement officer, an embarrassing stench has arisen in the department because of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
Some irate Democratic lawmakers -- especially Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. -- are calling for his resignation for what smacks of politicization of the Justice Department.
Gonzales took responsibility for mistakes that were made but insisted that he would not resign. He told a news conference Tuesday that the firings were the "right decision."
The prosecutors apparently were targeted by Republican members of Congress unhappy with their work, though Justice Department officials generally gave the eight good performance evaluations before their sudden terminations.
We now have learned that in early 2005, former White House counsel Harriet Miers asked a Justice Department official whether it would be feasible to sack all 93 federal prosecutors when their four-year terms expired to make way for new GOP appointees.
Gonzales rejected the idea as too disruptive. His more politically astute chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, told Miers such a wholesale firing would overtax the department. Sampson suggested dismissing limited groups to "avoid the shock to the system that would result from an across-the-board firing."
With an apparent push, Sampson resigned last week for failing to reveal to other Justice officials his dealings with the White House. He also lost out on a bid to be the federal attorney in Utah.
President Bush had alerted Gonzales to some of the Republican lawmakers' complaints and the list of the dismissals was approved by the White House.
"We continue to believe that the decision to remove and replace U.S. attorneys who serve at the pleasure of the president was perfectly appropriate and within our discretion," said Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino.
As if Gonzales does not have enough trouble, the FBI has now been accused of improperly using the USA Patriot Act to obtain personal information about people in the United States. A 126-page audit conducted by Inspector General Glenn Fine found some FBI agents demanded personal data and telephone records without proper authorization.
Gonzales has a lot to learn when it comes to preserving the integrity of his office.
Gonzales brought a lot of baggage to the department after being linked to detainee torture memos when he served as White House counsel.
He also advised Bush that foreign detainees were not entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions. Human rights advocates said this ruling led to prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison in Iraq.
A Justice Department spokesman conceded the bewildered U.S. attorneys should have been given specific reasons for their dismissals: "That would have helped to avoid the rampant misinformation and wild speculation that currently exists." Yes, that would have helped. Nevertheless, the whole picture has the taint of a political purge.
At first, Justice officials called prosecutors "a bunch of disgruntled employees."
Gonzales' initial reaction was to call the massive firings an "overblown personnel matter."
"My view is this is unfortunately a very big attempt by some in the Congress to make a political stink about it," said Karl Rove, a presidential adviser, in a speech Thursday.
Some of the ousted U.S. attorneys pushed back, rather than go quietly.
A few hours after Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., mused last week during a Judiciary Committee meeting that "one day there will be a new attorney general, maybe sooner rather than later," Gonzales caved and came to the Capitol to announce Bush would not oppose legislation that would cancel the attorney general's power to appoint federal prosecutors without Senate confirmation. The measure was previously dismissed by Gonzales as unreasonable.
It may be too late, but the attorney general has to understand that his oath to uphold the Constitution pre-empts his loyalty to the president and Republican Party.
Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail: email@example.com
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