Alberto Gonzales, President Bush and Scandal Politics

The scandal unraveling around US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales looks set to further tarnish President Bush’s image amid allegations of political interference in the administration of justice, misleading Congress, abuse of the Patriot Act and political profiling at the Department of Justice.

The political career of Mr Gonzales hangs in the balance as a growing chorus of Democrats, and so far one Republican, call for his resignation. Mr Gonzales has so far refused to step down.

Senator John Sununu (R-N.H.) became the first Congressional Republican to call for the dismissal of Mr Gonzales. “I think the President should replace him,” Senator Sununu told the Associated Press, hours after President Bush expressed confidence in Mr Gonzales.

“I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales,” President Bush said in Mexico. “I talked to him this morning, and we talked about his need to go up to Capitol Hill and make it very clear why the Justice Department made the decisions it made. And he’s right. Mistakes were made. And I’m frankly not happy about it, because there is a lot of confusion over what really has been a customary practice by the presidents.”

However, while it has been a “customary practice” for incoming US Presidents to install new US attorneys across the board upon taking office, the firing of eight serving federal prosecutors by the President who appointed them is unprecedented. According to the Congressional Research Service, out of 486 US attorneys confirmed since 1981, only three have been forced out under similar circumstances.

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is one of the Congressional Democrats leading the charge to demand that Mr Gonzales either resign or be fired. Senator Schumer recently detailed six ‘falsehoods’ communicated to Congress by Mr Gonzales and Department of Justice officials:

  1. Department of Justice officials initially claimed that seven of the eight US attorneys were fired for performance reasons – it has now been acknowledged that they had recently received ‘glowing’ performance evaluations.
  2. Mr Gonzales said that he would “never, ever make a change for political reasons” – yet there is mounting evidence that the firings were political punishments for prosecutors perceived to be “too light on Democrats or too tough on Republicans”.
  3. Mr Gonzales stated that the scandal was “just an overblown personnel matter” – however, Mr Schumer says that “far from being a low-level personnel matter, this was a longstanding plan to exact political vendettas or to make political pay-offs”.
  4. Congress was told that the White House was not involved in firings – yet emails released this week reveal that White House Counsel Harriet Miers (who resigned in January) had communicated extensively with Mr Gonzales’ Chief of Staff, Kyle Sampson (who resigned on Monday), in the lead up to the firings.
  5. Congress was assured that President Bush’s top political advisor Karl Rove had no involvement in getting his protégé, Timothy Griffin, appointed US attorney in Arkansas – whereas one of Mr Sampson’s emails states: “Getting him, Griffin, appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc”.
  6. Congress was told that the Patriot Act needed to be amended to “fix a legal loophole” for national security reasons, and Mr Gonzales recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the new provision (inserted in 2005) would not be used outside the intended emergency circumstances – however, one of Mr Sampson’s emails revealed that the Department of Justice intended to use the provision to bypass Senate confirmation to install US attorneys to replace those recently fired.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former US attorney, told PBS’s NewsHour that the conduct of the Department of Justice “smacks” of political interference and he plans to hold hearings to get to the bottom of the affair. “First of all, I want to find the facts. Then I want us to go back to the way they’re supposed to do it, that is, nominate a US attorney,” said Senator Leahy. “They come to the Senate for confirmation, and we get a chance to see whether this person is free of political motivations, but will work as a prosecutor should.”

Referring to the little-known provision in the Patriot Act, Senator Leahy added, “Here they were trying to use a loophole in the law to fire a number of people, put other people in; [this] sends a chilling effect among the US attorneys, but it also hurts the integrity and the independence of the US attorneys. People have to understand, this has hurt law enforcement, from the top all the way down, to see this kind of political interference.”

Senator Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who serves on the House Judiciary Committee agreed, “Well, I certainly can explain that this kind of gamesmanship was not the intent under the Patriot Act that gave certain emergency powers.”

The political workings behind the purge are highlighted in Mr Sampson’s emails. In one email, he recommends retaining US attorneys “who have … exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general”; in another, he argues that the Patriot Act should be used so that “We can get, one, our preferred person appointed and, two, do it far faster and more efficiently at less political cost to the White House.”

Democrats have also claimed that federal prosecutors were pressured to serve as political attack dogs for the White House – they claim that the fired attorneys were punished for failing to pursue cases against Democrats and succeeding in investigations of Republicans. Several of the attorneys have told Congress that they were subjected to improper pressure by Republicans regarding pending cases.

A recent study appears to confirm the practice of ‘political profiling’ and further concludes that the practice is unprecedented at the Department of Justice. Professors Donald Shields (University of Missouri, St Louis) and John Cragan (Illinois State University) found that, out of 375 candidates and elected public officials investigated during the years 2001-2006, a total of 298 (80%) were Democrats, compared to only 67 Republicans and 10 Independents.

Professors Shields and Cragan concluded that the Bush administration’s practice of political profiling has gone almost unnoticed because the cases and statistics have been localized. Their report calls for new federal laws to create a national registry of federal investigations of elected officials by party affiliation, to eliminate what they consider a political abuse of power.

Although no determinations have yet been made regarding claims of legal wrongdoing – for example, those relating to false statements made to Congress by Department of Justice officials – the latest scandal is clearly unwelcome by an increasingly beleaguered President Bush.

Critics of the Bush administration will no doubt attempt to use the emerging evidence to reinforce claims that there is a pattern of the administration playing politics – with the intelligence used to make the case for war in Iraq, with scientific research produced by US experts on climate change, and now with the federal administration of justice for its own partisan objectives.

As the White House once again swings into damage control – this time to explain the circumstances behind the firing of eight serving US attorneys – US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may soon find that his grip on his own office is hopelessly tenuous.


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