Crossposted on The Nation.
A scathing report issued Tuesday by the Justice Department’s Inspector General confirmed what has been an open secret. The Bush Administration has wrongfully and illegally politicized the Justice Department on a systematic basis through hiring practices that improperly took political or ideological factors into account.
Rumors and allegations about Justice Department politicization have been floating around for years now. So in some ways this latest report simply restates what we already knew (or thought we knew). But for the first time there is official confirmation, from an independent investigator, that these rumors and allegations are not only well-founded but accurate.
The report documents the ways in which hiring decisions favored conservatives over liberals, in violation of Justice Department policies, as well as laws prohibiting ideological discrimination in hiring. These are important and troubling revelations, with potentially far-reaching implications. That the report documents and reveals them publicly is undeniably good. But it also poses a risk. The publication of this and similar reports might lead some to believe that the work is over, that we now know all there is to know, and that is enough.
That this internal investigation has succeeded in documenting some of what went wrong under Attorneys General Ashcroft and Gonzales should not be a reason to sit back, satisfied that the truth has come out. Rather, it should be an impetus to push ahead, to intensify investigative efforts not just into what happened at the Justice Department but into who was responsible and what must be done to prevent a recurrence of this perversion of our criminal justice apparatus.
There is one area in particular that calls for a redoubling of investigative efforts. Remember the controversial forced resignations of several US attorneys in late 2006, for which implausible and conflicting justifications were given… and then the prosecutors were replaced by Bush Administration loyalists handpicked, in at least one instance, by Karl Rove? Congressional investigations into those forced resignations have uncovered credible evidence that they were motivated—like the hiring practices discussed in the latest report—by partisan political purposes. US attorneys who were unwilling to use their prosecutorial power for the benefit of Bush Administration allies—for example, by refusing to investigate nonexistent public corruption or cases of voter fraud—were marked for removal. Those who were willing stayed.
Given the results of this latest DOJ report indicating that hiring decisions were, at least in part, ideologically based, the charges that prosecutorial decisions were politicized is likely true as well. But Congress has been unable to determine whether that is, in fact, the case. Nor has it succeeded in pinning down exactly who decided which US Attorneys should go (there are some indications that the makeup of the final list was influenced by someone inside the White House) or whether there is any truth to the persistent rumors that the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman was a similar politically motivated partisan tactic (and possibly instigated by former White House political director Rove).
In fact, Congress’s concerted efforts to conduct effective investigations into these serious charges of misconduct have been systematically thwarted. Key witnesses have exhibited surprisingly poor memory (during one Congressional hearing into the matter, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales used variations the phrase “I don’t recall” on seventy-four occasions, according to one count), have given contradictory accounts of why the US attorneys were forced out, or have refused to testify altogether. The President has instructed current and former top aides Harriet Miers, Joshua Bolten and Karl Rove to refuse to comply with Congressional subpoenas for their testimony and for documents in their possession. Despite the House of Representatives’ holding Miers and Bolten in contempt of Congress and filing suit in the DC District Court to enlist judicial aide to enforce its subpoenas, any information they possess remains secret.
The Justice Department’s capable Inspector General is looking into these matters as well, but that investigation likely will not be sufficient to resolve the outstanding questions. If Miers, Bolten and Rove are unwilling to cooperate with Congress on the President’s instruction, they are unlikely to accede to an interview with the Inspector General. His inquiries therefore will be confined to what took place within the Justice Department’s walls. But what the American people really need to know is whether the politically motivated decisions regarding the forced resignations of US attorneys, the prosecution of a Democratic governor or the hiring practices at Justice were made by White House operatives—and, if so, on whose instructions.
This latest report from within the Justice Department confirms that the worst fears and suspicions that have emerged over the last six years are true. The mechanisms designed to enforce the criminal laws of the country were perverted to serve as a tool of the perpetual campaign being conducted by the current Administration. Whether this manipulation took place at the instigation of Justice Department officials eager to please their Chief Executive or whether the problem resides within the White House itself must be determined. Tuesday’s report and its findings thus only serve to amplify the importance of ensuring that Congress’s investigation into the US Attorney scandal is able to proceed.