Friday, April 20, 2007

An insider's take on Fredo's "damning dereliction"

As the preeminent poster child for Bush administration incompetence, attorney general Alberto “Fredo” Gonzales has actually performed an important public service. In his long-awaited Senate testimony yesterday, the president’s crony repeatedly demonstrated – via lapses of memory, and sporadic bursts of damaging candor – all the myriad ways that this lame-duck regime has laid waste to yet another once-proud federal institution, in this case the U.S. Department of Justice.

It is tempting to deconstruct Gonzales’ fumbling attempts to rationalize the firings of the eight federal prosecutors (many of whom were either investigating Republicans during an election season, or were deemed to be investigating Democrats with insufficient zeal). But such an effort on my part would probably constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.

After all, even Republicans told CNN yesterday that poking holes in the Gonzales narrative was the equivalent of clubbing a baby seal. Suffice it to say (for now) that the best defense offered yesterday by the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, when he wasn’t invoking “I can’t recall” more than 50 times, was that he had no idea what his own top aides were doing as they plotted the unprecedented firings, that he had no idea where the original hit list came from – and that, even now, even after weeks of prepping for his testimony, he still can’t explain the reasons for the firings. (By the way, President Bush said yesterday that he was “pleased” with Gonzales’ testimony, a statement which should rank with “Heckuva job, Brownie.”)

So rather than recite his embarrassments at length, I’d like to yield the floor to Daniel Metcalfe, who is well qualified to provide the big picture. Metcalfe, who describes himself as “a purposely non-partisan registered independent,” is a career public servant who worked at the Justice Department for nearly 36 years – under five Republican presidents and two Democratic presidents – as a trial attorney and later as a Freedom of Information specialist. He retired in January, which is why he now feels free to talk. In a long interview the other day with Legal Times, he minced no words in explaining why the prosecutor purge scandal is important, and, more broadly, why the Bush regime should be viewed as uniquely destructive.

I’ll excerpt his remarks at length:

“(T)his is a Cabinet department that, for good reason, prides itself on the high-quality administration of justice, regardless of who is in the White House. Ever since the Watergate era, when Edward Levi came in as attorney general to replace former Sen. William Saxby soon after Nixon resigned, the Justice Department maintained a healthy distance between it and what could be called the raw political concerns that are properly within the White House's domain….More recently, of course, the DOJ-White House distance hit its all-time high-water mark under Janet Reno, especially during Clinton's second term. And even (first Bush AG) John Ashcroft made it clear to all department employees that, among other things, he held that traditional distance in proper reverence…

“But that strong tradition of independence over the previous 30 years was shattered in 2005 with the arrival of the White House counsel (Gonzales) as a second-term AG. All sworn assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, it was as if the White House and Justice Department now were artificially tied at the hip….I attended many meetings in which this total lack of distance became quite clear, as if the current crop of political appointees in those offices weren't even aware of the important administration-of-justice principles that they were trampling.

“This matters greatly to Justice Department employees of my generation. They are now the senior career cadre there, with the high-grade institutional knowledge that carries the department from one administration to the next, and when they see a new attorney general come from the White House Counsel's Office with a wave of young ‘Bushies’ in tow and find their worst expectations quickly met, they just as quickly lose respect for nearly all of the department's political leadership, not to mention that leadership's ‘policy concerns.’ That respect is a vital thing, as fragile as it is essential, and now it's gone.”

Metcalfe views the purge scandal as a toxic mix of incompetence and ideological fervor:

“(I worked for) more than a dozen attorneys general, including (Reagan’s) Ed Meese as well as (Nixon’s) John Mitchell, and I used to think that they had politicized the department more than anyone could or should. But nothing compares to the past two years under Alberto Gonzales….(E)ven Ashcroft brought in political aides who in large measure were experienced in government functioning. Ashcroft's Justice Department appointees, with few exceptions, were not the type of people who caused you to wonder what they were doing there. They might not have been firm believers in the importance of government, but generally speaking, there was a very respectable level of competence (in some instances even exceptionally so) and a relatively strong dedication to quality government, as far as I could see.

“Under Gonzales, though, almost immediately from the time of his arrival in February 2005, this changed quite noticeably….(M)ost significantly for present purposes, there was an almost immediate influx of young political aides beginning in the first half of 2005 (e.g., counsels to the AG, associate deputy attorneys general, deputy associate attorneys general, and deputy assistant attorneys general) whose inexperience in the processes of government was surpassed only by their evident disdain for it…

“I found it not at all surprising that the recent U.S. Attorney problems arose in the first place and then were so badly mishandled once they did….No longer was emphasis placed on accomplishing something with the highest-quality product in a timely fashion; rather, it became a matter of making sure that a ‘consensus’ was achieved, regardless of how long that might take and with little or no concern that quality would suffer in such a ‘lowest common denominator’ environment.

“And heaven help anyone, career or non-career employee, if that ‘consensus’ did not include whatever someone in the White House might think about something, be it large, small or medium-sized…

“(I)t became quite clear that under Gonzales, the department placed no more than secondary value on the standards that I and my office had valued so heavily for the preceding 25 years -- accuracy, integrity, responsibility and quality of decision-making being chief among them.”

Therefore, Metcalfe concludes, the attorney general’s “most damning dereliction” is that Kyle Sampson allowed unqualified underlings (whom Metcalfe describes as “too subject-matter ignorant to even realize how ignorant they are”) to cook up the prosecutor purge – even though “the end result was something that even he could not fully explain.”

True enough. My favorite Gonzales line yesterday: "This was a process that was ongoing that I did not have transparency into."

In the long run, said career professional Metcalfe, Gonzales will have to be long gone before the DOJ can “at least begin the process of restoring the department’s previous reputation for political independence and the reliably even-handed administration of justice.” Indeed, he said, the DOJ is in dire need of “Watergate-style repair.”

Which brings us back to one classic moment in Gonzales’ testimony. Midway through his morning ordeal, he declared to the senators: “When you attack the department for being partisan, you're really attacking the career professionals.” By saying that, was he being willfully cynical – or cluelessly incompetent? Because as Metcalfe (and others) have already demonstrated, it’s the career professionals who have been most victimized during Gonzales’ tenure, precisely because they have struggled to remain non-partisan.

Gonzales’ bid to hide behind the “career professionals” echoes Bush’s ongoing attempts to defend his war by hiding behind the troops. The two cronies are indistinguishable. Their talking points are the same; their governing styles are the same.

And remember, it was Bush who was really on the hot seat yesterday. The buck stops with him. As he put it yesterday (via CNN), in his inimitable style, "My job is a job to make decisions. I’m a decision — if the job description were, what do you do — it’s decision-maker."