WHAT HAPPENS in a presidential administration when loyalty, to borrow a phrase from "Star Trek," becomes the "prime directive"? What happens when its all-encompassing fog obscures all other values — such as fealty to the Constitution, the rule of law or simple humanity?
What happens is that terrible decisions are made, repeated and then justified by this shibboleth. That's just one of the lessons that has emerged from the U.S. attorney scandal.
This week, the Senate is threatening to vote on a resolution of no-confidence in U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. Today, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear testimony from Monica Goodling, the attorney general's former aide, who will be asked why at least eight U.S. attorneys, including me, were put on a list to be forced from office.
What has become clear already is that the "loyalty uber alles" mentality has infected a wide swath of the Bush administration. Simple notions like right and wrong are, in their eyes, matters of allegiance, not conscience.
The chilling congressional testimony given by former Deputy Atty. Gen. James B. Comey last week provided a graphic example of loyalty run amok. Comey recounted how, in 2004, former White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and then-White House counsel Gonzales visited a hospitalized Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, who had undergone surgery for pancreatitis. Undoubtedly under the influence of powerful painkillers, Ashcroft had just enough presence of mind to refuse, as Comey already had, to approve the extension of the illegal warrantless wiretap program. Comey was right there in the darkened hospital room but was ignored by Card and Gonzales, even though both knew he was the acting attorney general while Ashcroft was critically ill. Where was the compassion, conservative or otherwise, in that dark, silent room? Where was the humanity? Subsumed by loyalty.
Loyalty is a virtue with limits. That was one of the many hard lessons from Watergate. In that scandal, some of President Nixon's staffers carried their loyalty to the president all the way to federal prison.
All federal prosecutors take a public oath when they assume office. I personally swore in about 30 new federal prosecutors during my tenure as U.S. attorney for New Mexico. The oath is to the U.S. Constitution, not to the president or his Cabinet.
Somehow Goodling did not understand this keystone concept. She appears to have placed her loyalty to the Bush administration and the Republican Party above any allegiance to the Constitution — which may have led her to believe that Bush acolytes would make the best federal prosecutors. Paradoxically, she knew enough of the Constitution to claim the protections afforded by the 5th Amendment—the right against self-incrimination.
I trust she now understands what is at stake in the U.S. attorney scandal: the rule of law, the independence of the prosecutor and the apolitical calculus of who should be prosecuted. Now, her immunity deal secured, she needs to seek redemption by clearly testifying about how my colleagues and I came to be placed on the to-fire list. It will demand moral courage, but she must name the political operatives regardless of where they sit in the West Wing of the White House. She needs, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, to "maintain justice and do what is right."
And what of the embattled attorney general? Will Gonzales stay on to be the only Cabinet officer to receive a no-confidence vote? I once said that I found Gonzales to be a personal inspiration. No one can deny him his life's story, which is the American dream writ large. It began in Humble, Texas, born of impoverished Mexican American parents. He, like me, is a veteran of the U.S. military. He went to some of the best schools in America, including Harvard Law. Yet, somewhere along the line, he drank the loyalty Kool-Aid. Watching him testify before the Senate and House was painful for me. He had been a trailblazer for the Latino community, and then, in the space of a few hours of tortured testimony, he became just another morally rudderless political operative.
Will he "cowboy up," as we say in New Mexico — that is, find the courage to do the right thing? Or will he make the Senate go right up to the precipice of a no-confidence vote?
To be sure, the Justice Department is "dysfunctional," in the words of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), but it is also in desperate need of leaders who place loyalty to the Constitution on a higher level than politics. We don't need latter-day Haldemans, Ehrlichmans or Colsons going to jail. The nation needs leaders who take ultimate responsibility for the wrongful actions of their subordinates; leaders who do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. Mr. Attorney General, it's time for you to cowboy up and do what's best for the American people you serve.