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Justice Ends Bush-Era U.S. Attorney Scandal With a Whimper, Not a Prosecution

4 years ago
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The Justice Department's two-year investigation of Bush administration officials involved in the U.S. attorney scandal of 2006-2007 ended curiously last week amid the shouting over Shirleygate, and only the stoutest of major media outlets much noticed or marked the ignoble occasion.

Surely, you remember the U.S. attorney scandal. It occurred when officials at George W. Bush's White House and Alberto Gonzales' Justice Department fired (unusually, in midterm) eight successful, Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys. The circumstances gave rise to suspicions, and later circumstantial evidence, that the government lawyers were sacked because they weren't sufficiently rowing in the same ideological direction as their bosses. There were investigations. There were hearings on Capitol Hill. There were resignations. As a measure of severity, and judging it by the great Washington scandal of my generation, there was even another Monica (Goodling, that is).

For those of you now tuning back in, don't worry. You didn't miss much. The song remains the same. Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, and Karl Rove, the former presidential adviser, fudged and fussed and never fully cooperated with the investigation. The president and vice president were spared the inconvenience even of subpoenas. Former Attorney General Gonzales was reprimanded -- but not officially sanctioned -- by government officials. And he and his sub-cronies, who systematically replaced professional attorneys at the Justice Department with partisan hacks, will not face prosecution (or, evidently, further investigation off Capitol Hill).

No indictments, and likely no more investigations for Alberto Gonzales, Kyle Sampson, Monica Goodling and the rest of the old gang at Justice.

The Justice Department eased off this past week -- notifying the world of its intentions through a letter to the lawmakers -- despite an acknowledgment by federal lawyers that there is evidence that the conduct of these men and women was improper -- "inappropriately political" was the euphemism employed. For example, few who saw Gonzales' performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2007 will ever forget it. Yet although the misconduct from high officials damaged the credibility and the reputation of the Justice Department -- it still has not recovered -- there has been no meaningful public accounting from the federal government.

As Harper's magazine contributing editor Scott Horton explained so well: If you are inclined to be dissatisfied with the outcome here, there are plenty of culprits to point at besides the bad actors themselves: It starts with (1) former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who in September 2008 appointed (2) Nora Dannehy, a Republican-appointed federal prosecutor, who immediately limited the scope of the investigation and signed off on last week's coup de grace. Instead of looking into the pattern in the firings -- there were eight in all -- Dannehy narrowed the scope of her work into a focus on the premature firing of David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney for New Mexico. And then there is (3) current Attorney General Eric Holder, who signaled long ago his lack of appetite for re-litigating even the worst legal moments of the Bush era.

And the man at the center of the controversy has now become the second former high-ranking Bush administration official in the past two weeks to play the victim. On the heels of 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jay Bybee's complaint last week over the grief he has received for authorizing what have been termed the "torture memos," Alberto Gonzales appeared on CNN after the Justice Department's verdict had been handed down. Instead of expressing the relief he surely must feel at having dodged a federal criminal indictment, Gonzales said instead: "I feel angry that I had to go through this. That my family had to suffer through and what for?" What for, indeed.

Of the scandal itself, Gonzales repeated his long-held story: "I made the decision based upon what I thought was best for the department and for the American people. All these investigations have now confirmed that this was not to influence improperly any ongoing investigation or to punish anyone for political reasons." I guess it all depends upon what your definition of "inappropriately political" is.

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