There’s something happening here, and what it is seems completely clear: the Bush administration is trying to protect itself by purging independent-minded prosecutors.
Last month, Bud Cummins, the U.S. attorney (federal prosecutor) for the Eastern District of Arkansas, received a call on his cellphone while hiking in the woods with his son. He was informed that he had just been replaced by J. Timothy Griffin, a Republican political operative who has spent the last few years working as an opposition researcher for Karl Rove.
Mr. Cummins’s case isn’t unique. Since the middle of last month, the Bush administration has pushed out at least four U.S. attorneys, and possibly as many as seven, without explanation. The list includes Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney for San Diego, who successfully prosecuted Duke Cunningham, a Republican congressman, on major corruption charges. The top F.B.I. official in San Diego told The San Diego Union-Tribune that Ms. Lam’s dismissal would undermine multiple continuing investigations.
In Senate testimony yesterday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales refused to say how many other attorneys have been asked to resign, calling it a “personnel matter.”
In case you’re wondering, such a wholesale firing of prosecutors midway through an administration isn’t normal. U.S. attorneys, The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, “typically are appointed at the beginning of a new president’s term, and serve throughout that term.” Why, then, are prosecutors that the Bush administration itself appointed suddenly being pushed out?
The likely answer is that for the first time the administration is really worried about where corruption investigations might lead.
Since the day it took power this administration has shown nothing but contempt for the normal principles of good government. For six years ethical problems and conflicts of interest have been the rule, not the exception.
For a long time the administration nonetheless seemed untouchable, protected both by Republican control of Congress and by its ability to justify anything and everything as necessary for the war on terror. Now, however, the investigations are closing in on the Oval Office. The latest news is that J. Steven Griles, the former deputy secretary of the Interior Department and the poster child for the administration’s systematic policy of putting foxes in charge of henhouses, is finally facing possible indictment.
And the purge of U.S. attorneys looks like a pre-emptive strike against the gathering forces of justice.
Won’t the administration have trouble getting its new appointees confirmed by the Senate? Well, it turns out that it won’t have to.
Arlen Specter, the Republican senator who headed the Judiciary Committee until Congress changed hands, made sure of that last year. Previously, new U.S. attorneys needed Senate confirmation within 120 days or federal district courts would name replacements. But as part of a conference committee reconciling House and Senate versions of the revised Patriot Act, Mr. Specter slipped in a clause eliminating that rule.
As Paul Kiel of TPMmuckraker.com — which has done yeoman investigative reporting on this story — put it, this clause in effect allows the administration “to handpick replacements and keep them there in perpetuity without the ordeal of Senate confirmation.” How convenient.
Mr. Gonzales says that there’s nothing political about the firings. And according to The Associated Press, he said that district court judges shouldn’t appoint U.S. attorneys because they “tend to appoint friends and others not properly qualified to be prosecutors.” Words fail me.
Mr. Gonzales also says that the administration intends to get Senate confirmation for every replacement. Sorry, but that’s not at all credible, even if we ignore the administration’s track record. Mr. Griffin, the political-operative-turned-prosecutor, would be savaged in a confirmation hearing. By appointing him, the administration showed that it has no intention of following the usual rules.
The broader context is this: defeat in the midterm elections hasn’t led the Bush administration to scale back its imperial view of presidential power.
On the contrary, now that President Bush can no longer count on Congress to do his bidding, he’s more determined than ever to claim essentially unlimited authority — whether it’s the authority to send more troops into Iraq or the authority to stonewall investigations into his own administration’s conduct.
The next two years, in other words, are going to be a rolling constitutional crisis.