A Justice Department investigation has concluded what many Americans already suspected: Political motivations were behind the Bush administration's firing of at least several federal prosecutors in 2006. The issue now is whether that perversion of the justice system amounted to a crime. Attorney General Michael Mukasey made the right move in appointing a special prosecutor.
The attorney general had little choice. The report released Monday by the Justice Department's inspector general and office of professional responsibility raises more serious questions about how Mukasey's predecessor, Alberto Gonzales, ran the nation's chief law enforcement agency.
The inquiry found "significant evidence that political partisan considerations were an important factor in the removal of several of the U.S. attorneys." It singled out the case of David Iglesias, who was fired as U.S. attorney in New Mexico after influential Republicans accused him of not following up on their allegations of Democratic voter fraud. The allegations were not only a ruse — Iglesias had been widely recognized for his pursuit of voter fraud cases — but they were routed to Karl Rove, Bush's chief political operative, and to the president.
Mukasey, in announcing the acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut would investigate, acknowledged the firings were "arbitrary and unprofessional." But they were even worse than that. While the report laid most of the blame on Gonzales' aides, the probe was stymied by administration officials who stonewalled investigators, withheld documents, made false public statements and misled Congress. Gonzales, who gave "inaccurate and misleading statements" to the press about his involvement, and whose memory failures the department found "extraordinary," was "remarkably unengaged" for such an "unprecedented removal" of federal prosecutors.
Special prosecutor Nora Dannehy needs to advance the story beyond what's already known — that Gonzales' senior aides took politics into account in hiring and that they directed the purge at the operational level. She needs to jog the memory of Justice and White House officials and obtain the full and uncensored record of the firings, with the help of subpoenas.
Mukasey has made a start in distancing the office from Gonzales' legacy of ineptitude and indifference to ethical standards. But he has a long way to go to repair the public's faith. Gonzales so destroyed the integrity of the Justice Department that the naming of a special prosecutor as this administration heads for the door has as much potential to reinforce public cynicism as it does to build back confidence. The investigation has to be deliberate, targeted and effective. Sworn testimony from Rove and others who have ignored congressional subpoenas must be obtained. And if laws were broken, there is an obligation to follow through with prosecutions even after a new administration takes office.