In order to replace several U.S. Attorneys with handpicked successors, the Bush Administration has relied on a tiny, obscure provision tucked into last year's USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act.
How did it get there?
Former Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) slipped the language into the bill at the very last minute, according to one of the Republican managers of the bill.
A spokesperson for Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who led the House team working on the bill, said that the provision was inserted by Specter into the final draft of the bill. The language was apparently requested by the Justice Department. Specter's office didn't respond to numerous requests for comment.
Earlier versions of the bill did not contain the provision, which grants authority to the Attorney General to replace U.S. Attorneys without Senate approval. When the House and the Senate first voted in favor of the legislation, the provision did not exist.
Instead, the tweak was inserted during the conference committee, where lawmakers from the House and Senate reconcile discrepancies in the two versions and craft a final bill.
In an unusual move, Republicans blocked Democrats from participating in many of the committee's activities.
According to the original law, the Attorney General could appoint interim U.S. Attorneys, but if they were not nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate within 120 days of being appointed, the federal district court would appoint a replacement. The new law wiped away that 120 day rule, in effect allowing the administration to handpick replacements and keep them there in perpetuity without the ordeal of Senate confirmation.
But amidst all the controversy last year over the PATRIOT reauthorization bill (the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, their use of National Security Letters to get information on citizens), the new law simply went unnoticed. Until now.