The National Catholic Review
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The reaction of Robert Gates, the new secretary of defense, to the failure to provide appropriate medical care to wounded veterans offers a striking contrast to the reaction of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to reports that eight United States attorneys had been fired for partisan political reasons. Mr. Gates fired the commander at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and forced the resignation of the secretary of the Army and the early retirement of the Army surgeon general. Mr. Gonzales, on the other hand, allowed that mistakes had been made but claimed that he had no direct knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the departure of the eight U.S. attorneys.

The Justice Department first claimed that the attorneys had been asked to resign because of incompetent performance. This defense, however, quickly crumbled when the record of the positive evaluations the attorneys had received was reviewed. The subsequent release of correspondence between the White House and the Justice Department confirmed that the plan had not simply been reviewed by the White House but had, in fact, originated there.

The attorney general’s chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, had been in frequent communication with Harriet Miers, then the White House counsel, and Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser, in plotting the dismissal of federal prosecutors who were deemed insufficiently loyal. After warning in an e-mail message about a possible negative reaction, Mr. Sampson added that if Karl thinks there would be political will to do it, so do I. Mr. Sampson abruptly resigned after the correspondence was made public. But Republicans as well as Democrats were angered by the misleading information.

Federal prosecutors like the attorneys in question are appointed by the president and can be fired by the president. They are political appointees in the sense that they are expected to pursue the policy priorities of the president and his administration. A new president and a new administration will normally appoint a new set of U.S. attorneys. Once in office, however, federal prosecutors are expected to enjoy relative autonomy in exercising their power; attempts by political figures to influence the prosecution of individual cases is improper and can even be illegal.

In his confirmation hearings, Mr. Gonzales recognized that in moving from his role as White House counsel to the position of attorney general, he would be held accountable to the people of the United States and not simply to the president. The attorney general does not appear to have accomplished this transition successfully. The close-knit group of Texas advisers who surrounded then-Governor George W. Bush seem to have allowed loyalty to the President to dictate the discharge of their responsibilities on the national level. Narrow partisan loyalty can lead to the acceptance of incompetent performance by political appointees, as was the case in the administration’s scandalous response to the Katrina disaster. A more dangerous abuse of power was revealed in the report of the inspector general of the Justice Department that F.B.I. agents had misused provisions of the USA Patriot Act by investigating the personal affairs of U.S. citizens.

The explanations provided thus far for the dismissal of the attorneys have not been reassuring. In one case, the federal prosecutor was fired in order to make room for a protégé of Karl Rove. In another case, the highly respected Carol C. Lam, the U.S. attorney in San Diego who had successfully prosecuted a former Republican congressman on corruption charges and was engaged in another investigation that could prove embarrassing to Republican supporters, was fired in apparent retaliation. Perhaps the most notorious incident involving direct political interference was the dismissal of David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, after he refused to do the bidding of the Republican Senator Pete V. Domenici in pursuing allegations of voter fraud that could have had an impact on impending elections. Voter fraud can be a euphemism for attempts to disenfranchise minority voters.

As more documentation of the attorney general’s role in the dismissals was made available by the administration, his credibility with the U.S. Congress and the American people continued to suffer. The refusal of the president to allow Mr. Rove and other close advisers to testify under oath to Congressional committees threatens to lead to a test of executive privilege in the courts. The resignation of Mr. Gonzales would be a first step in assuring the American people that a culture of accountability, exemplified in the response of Defense Secretary Gates to the Walter Reed scandal, will become the norm for other departments in the administration as well.

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