Contemptible Conduct at Justice

When a senator of the president's party tells his attorney general that his "credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable," it is time for the president to stop letting loyalty blind him to that Cabinet member's incompetence and untrustworthiness. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has long since forfeited Congress's and the public's faith in his leadership of the Justice Department.

Gonzales was back before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday for questions about the White House's purge last year of nine of its own appointees as US attorneys, and about his role, as White House counsel, in a 2004 effort to get a hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft to approve an intelligence-gathering program that Ashcroft thought was illegal. Gonzales denied pressing Ashcroft to approve the program, which committee members believe was the administration's warrantless wiretapping of telephone calls. This is what prompted Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to warn Gonzales that he might be perjuring himself.

The committee had heard a quite different account of the hospital episode from Ashcroft's deputy, James Comey. He told Congress in May that Gonzales and President Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, had put pressure on Ashcroft while he was in intensive care after surgery to OK the intelligence-gathering program, which Comey declined to describe in detail. Comey said that he, Ashcroft, and FBI head Robert Mueller had threatened to resign over the program until the administration modified it.

Concerning the firing of the US attorneys, Gonzales refused to answer questions yesterday, on the curious grounds that his involvement in the decisions disqualified him from doing so. Both the Senate and House judiciary committees are trying to determine if the purge was motivated by politics. Several of the fired attorneys had either prosecuted Republican officeholders or decided not to bring charges in cases of alleged voting fraud by Democrats.

The congressional inquiries have been stymied by the refusal of Bush aides to testify on the grounds of executive privilege. Congress has threatened to cite them for contempt, but this week the White House said it would order the Justice Department not to prosecute any of the aides for contempt of Congress.

The brazenness of that interference in the function of Congress and the courts caused Specter yesterday to ask Gonzales, "Do you think constitutional government in the United States can survive if the president has the unilateral authority to reject congressional inquiries?" Gonzales, predictably, refused to answer. But the question will not go away, as Congress tries to determine the depths to which Bush's unfit attorney general has brought the nation's once-respected Department of Justice.

(c) 2007 The Boston Globe

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