Senate Republicans have turned on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales after his explanations over the dismissals of eight US Attorneys failed to convince the Senators that Justice had good reasons for their termination. Normally staunch GOP defenders of the administration like Jon Kyl of Arizona scolded Gonzales yesterday in a hearing, and the White House has begun to retreat on interim replacement powers as a result:
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales agreed yesterday to change the way U.S. attorneys can be replaced, a reversal in administration policy that came after he was browbeaten by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee still angry over the controversial firings of eight federal prosecutors.
Gonzales told Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and other senior members of the committee that the administration will no longer oppose legislation limiting the attorney general's power to appoint interim prosecutors. Gonzales also agreed to allow the committee to interview five top-level Justice Department officials as part of an ongoing Democratic-led probe into the firings, senators said after a tense, hour-long meeting in Leahy's office suite.
The concessions represent a turnaround by the White House and the Justice Department, which have argued for three months that Gonzales must have unfettered power to appoint interim federal prosecutors and have resisted disclosing details about the firings. ...
Even two of the administration's strongest defenders on the issue openly questioned the Justice Department's handling of the dismissals. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) called the lack of explanation for the firings "unhealthy," and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said the department's public criticisms of the ousted prosecutors were unwarranted.
"Some people's reputations are going to suffer needlessly," Kyl said.
The firings came after passage of a new law, part of a larger bill, that gave Gonzales the power to appoint interim US Attorneys for indefinite periods after a termination. Gonzales wanted to streamline the process for replacements by eliminating the need for immediate Senate confirmation, and the new law allowed the AG to make the interim appointments rather than the local federal district court.
Immediately after that change became effective, Gonzales terminated almost 10% of his US Attorneys, all of which were Bush appointments. While the administration employs these US Attorneys as political appointments, it is unusual to terminate them in the middle of a term, especially in such a significant number. When Gonzales filled one of the positions with an associate of Karl Rove, it made the entire exercise look like the beginning of a patronage system at Justice.
Kyl and Arlen Specter scolded Gonzales for publicly impugning the peformance of the attorneys in an op-ed piece for USA Today earlier this week. John Ensign, normally another dependable defender of the administration, went public with his anger over the dismissal of Daniel Bogden in Nevada. Pete Domenici and Heather Thomas have now acknowledged calling New Mexico US Attorney David Iglesias to ask him why a corruption probe against Democrats was delayed, just weeks before the last elections, making even other Republican Senators uncomfortable with the appearance of pressure on Iglesias. (Domenici hired a lawyer to prepare a defense against a potential ethics charge.)
The new Democratic majority has made reversing that change in the law a priority. Kyl, up to now, has blocked that effort, but from his remarks yesterday it appeared he may have been wavering. The White House took it out of Kyl's hands altogether by agreeing to allow the bill to proceed to the floor. Leahy says that Bush has committed to signing it, if it passes Congress.
Gonzales has more explaining to do. Political appointees serve at the pleasure of the President, but wise administrations take care not to overly politicize the offices themselves. Prosecutors have to have enough credibility to be seem to conduct investigations in a fair and impartial manner, especially those involving public corruption. This will continue to attract attention until Gonzales explains the sudden significant turnover for attorneys, almost all of whom had received good performance evaluations. It's a controversy no one needed and quite frankly didn't have to occur.