Crossing a line

Some were fired because they irritated Justice Department higher-ups. Others were dismissed after Republican politicians groused about their failure to move quickly against political enemies. One was removed to make room for Karl Rove's handpicked candidate. For some, there seems to be no explanation of why they were asked to leave; remarkably, two were let go because of poor performance evaluations.

These were some of the conclusions contained in a scathing report released Monday about the Bush administration's firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. In a 392-page document, the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility detailed incompetent, unethical and possibly criminal conduct that surrounded the dismissals. Attorney General Michael Mukasey was right when he said in a written statement after the report's release: "It is true, as the report acknowledges, that an Administration is entitled to remove presidential appointees, including U.S. Attorneys, for virtually any reason or no reason at all. But the leaders of the Department owed it to those who served the country in those capacities to treat their careers and reputations with appropriate care and dignity. And the leaders of the Department owed it to the American people they served to conduct the public's business in a deliberate and professional manner. The Department failed on both scores."

The authors of the report appropriately place primary blame for the breakdown in professionalism on former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, who showed a breathtaking disengagement from the process of disposing of nine presidential appointees. Gonzales told investigators that he delegated the task of identifying underperforming U.S. attorneys to his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson. Gonzales never inquired about or laid out the standards Sampson would use to evaluate these prosecutors. Sampson acknowledged in the report that he did not recommend the dismissal of some "mediocre" prosecutors because they enjoyed home state political support. That Sampson placed more importance on the U.S. attorneys' political connections than on qualifications either didn't register with or bother the attorney general. Gonzales didn't so much delegate as abdicate responsibility for ensuring that the department was being run in a professional and ethical manner. And while Gonzales epitomized in the extreme a "hands-off" management approach, his deputy, Paul McNulty, simply washed his hands of the matter. McNulty was not informed of the push to remove U.S. attorneys until very late in the process. When he was clued in, he did nothing to stop improper considerations, although the report says he objected to them.

We are normally not fans of special prosecutors. But Mukasey in this case took the appropriate step of naming Nora Dannehy, a veteran Justice Department prosecutor and currently acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to determine whether criminal laws against false statements or obstruction of justice were violated.

— The Washington Post

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