There have been two scandals break at the Department of Justice recently. One is big, the other small. One concerns illegality, the other just impropriety. Ironically, the impropriety is the big scandal, the illegality is barely noticed. The difference is the mea culpa.
The first scandal to emerge was over the firing of 7-8 U.S. Attorneys (USAs). These federal prosecutors work for the Justice Department, and can be hired and fired at the will of the Attorney General. In fact, at the beginning of President Clinton’s second term, he swept out all 93 USAs at once. There is nothing illegal about letting USAs go.
When the fired USAs brought the story to the media, the problem the Bush administration ran into was its own response. Their first reaction when accused of firing the USAs for political reasons was not to say, “we can fire whom we want, when we want;” instead they said it wasn’t political. On the face of it and at the core of it, it looks very political, whether or not it was. The second mistake they made was to hold onto both statements: 1) we can fire whom we want; 2) and it wasn’t political.
The result was that the longer they held onto the “It wasn’t political” line, the more the media focused on the politics of it. It has blown into a huge problem for the DoJ, and for Alberto Gonzales in particular, possibly ending his career.
The other scandal was the admission by the FBI (an arm of the DoJ) that it had illegally abused the “national security letter” provision of the Patriot Act; these letters allow surveillance of e-mails, phone, and financial records. It turns out that the FBI misused this power possibly thousands of times. Why no brouhaha? After all, this was an illegal violation of the civil rights of thousands of Americans. Because FBI Director Robert Mueller came clean (not waiting for the media to break the story), took responsibility for it, admitted it was wrong, and promised it wouldn’t happen again. Although there have been hearings, etc., the storm has blown over leaving the Democratic congress with very little political traction on the issue.
I think the American people are very forgiving of a penitent person. But the bravado, arrogance, and ignorance of the Bush administration has once again caused it to stumble. It’s just one more stitch in the mantle of what will be known to future generations as “The Worst Presidency in American History.”