A FIRESTORM has been ignited over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, with new revelations about the Bush administration's abuses exposed on a daily basis. We now know that this isn't about some partisan "conspiracy theory" concocted by administration critics, as a Times editorial claimed on Jan. 26.
The record shows that this was a premeditated plan to remove U.S. attorneys and replace them indefinitely with others — who might not be qualified — without Senate confirmation. The means to accomplish this was a provision slipped into the 2006 reauthorization of the Patriot Act with no notice. The end result is a clear abuse of power that reaches into the highest offices of the Department of Justice and the White House, touching Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers and presidential advisor Karl Rove.
The way to curb this abuse is to return to our nation's basic principle that checks and balances on power are necessary and desirable.
That's why I have proposed legislation to restore the process that was in place before 2006, which would require Senate approval of every U.S. attorney. This legislation would allow the attorney general to appoint an interim U.S. attorney for 120 days when vacancies occur. If, after that time, the president has not sent a nominee to the Senate and had that nominee confirmed, the authority to appoint an interim U.S. attorney would fall to a local district court. This was the process put in place under the Reagan administration.
This legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month with bipartisan support and will be debated in the Senate next week. Times editorials have called this legislation "misguided," but had it been in place, it would have prevented the abuses.
Let's review the facts:
In early 2005, Miers, then the White House counsel, and Rove asked about the desirability of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys . They were told by Gonzales' staff that this would result in an unacceptable shock to the system.
Nonetheless, top officials at the White House and the Justice Department hatched a plan to remove a smaller number of U.S. attorneys. One of the keys in the evaluation was whether the prosecutor showed loyalty to the administration.
Gonzales' chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, advocated using the new Patriot Act powers and argued that the legislation would allow the Justice Department to bypass the checks inherent in the Senate confirmation process. He wrote that by avoiding the Senate, "we can give far less deference to home-state senators and thereby get (1) our preferred person appointed and (2) do it far faster and more efficiently, at less political cost to the White House."
In June 2006, the first firing that we know of occurred, though it received little national notice. H.E. "Bud" Cummins III of Arkansas was forced to resign and was replaced with Timothy Griffin, special assistant to Rove.
Finally, on Dec. 7, 2006, seven other U.S. attorneys were forced to resign by January. Five were involved in ongoing corruption probes. These prosecutors had received strong performance reviews by independent evaluators and some were originally judged — by the Justice Department's own subjective standards — to be among the top prosecutors who were loyal to the president and the attorney general.
Making a bad situation worse, the attorney general's justification for the firings has shifted over time.
At first, Gonzales flatly denied charges of wrongdoing when asked by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I would never, ever make a change in the United States attorney position for political reasons," he said. It was later revealed that Cummins' removal was political.
Later, the administration's justification became "performance-related" issues, and finally, a "loss of confidence" in these U.S. attorneys.
It is absolutely critical for Congress to restore the approval process in place before 2006. This is the only way to ensure that another administration doesn't travel down the same path.
We also must determine the role played by key White House officials and Gonzales, who has "taken responsibility" for the matter but also said that he did not know what was going on. Five out of eight of the fired U.S. attorneys were involved in investigations into public corruption. What signal does it send to other U.S. attorneys about investigating matters of corruption involving public officials, particularly if those officials are of your own party? It creates a chilling effect.
I recognize that U.S. attorneys are political appointments, but their appointments should require Senate confirmation. And once these prosecutors take the oath of office, they are responsible to the people of the United States — not just the president — and they must be independent and objective.