The sphinx has spoken: Karl Rove finally has been interviewed by a congressional committee investigating the Bush administration's dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys. Although it added few new details about this shameful episode, Rove's interview -- and that of former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers -- confirmed that the White House meddled in the operation of the Justice Department and that in at least one case the interference bordered on obstruction of justice.
George W. Bush's most influential aide insists that his account and documents released by the House Judiciary Committee prove that "politics played no role in the Bush administration's removal of U.S. attorneys, that I never sought to influence the conduct of any prosecution, and that I played no role in deciding which U.S. attorneys were retained and which replaced."
The first claim is not credible. Last year, the Justice Department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility found "significant evidence that political partisan conditions were an important factor in the removal of several of the U.S. attorneys." Evidence abounds that David C. Iglesias, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, antagonized the White House (as well as his former patron, then-Sen. Pete V. Domenici) by not pursuing an investigation quickly enough to produce indictments that would embarrass Democrats before the 2006 elections.
Rove may not have interfered in any prosecutions or made the final decision to fire Iglesias. But he admitted that he was "suspicious of the guy" and had passed along complaints about Iglesias to the White House with the expectation that they would be relayed to the Justice Department. Miers told the panel that Rove was "very agitated" over complaints about Iglesias from Republicans in New Mexico.
A prosecutor is investigating whether laws were broken in the Iglesias firing. But even if the dismissals weren't criminal, they reflected an unpardonable politicization of justice (and of Justice). This is, admittedly, a point where politics and legal ethics intersect: It's impossible to remove politics from the selection of U.S. attorneys, who are recommended by home-state senators of the president's party. That pattern persists as President Obama gradually replaces Bush appointees, making a sensible exception for holdovers who are investigating or prosecuting prominent Democrats.
Where the Bush administration departed from past practice was in treating the Justice Department as an extension of the White House. Even if a prosecutor isn't fired for antagonizing a powerful politician, the perception that he or she remains in office at the whim of political operatives corrodes public confidence and enables targets of an investigation to allege selective prosecution. That lesson shouldn't be lost on Obama and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.