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David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

As anyone who has paid a lick of attention to the U.S. Attorney scandal knows, it is just one example--perhaps the most egregious example--of the Bush Administration's deep and widespread politicization of the Justice Department:

No other administration in contemporary times has had such a clear pattern of filling chief prosecutors' jobs with its own staff members, said experts on U.S. attorney's offices. Those experts said the emphasis in appointments traditionally has been on local roots and deference to home-state senators, whose support has been crucial to win confirmation of the nominees.

The pattern from Bush's second term suggests that the dismissals were half of a two-pronged approach: While getting rid of prosecutors who did not adhere closely to administration priorities, such as rigorous enforcement of immigration violations and GOP allegations of voter fraud, White House and Justice officials also have seeded federal prosecutors' offices with people on whom they can depend to carry out the administration's agenda.

The Bush Administration is ratcheting up the pressure on Syria:

The State Department in recent weeks has issued a series of rhetorical broadsides against Syria, using language harsher than that usually reserved for U.S. adversaries. On Friday, the administration criticized a planned visit there by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"It's the new Cuba - no language is too tough," said one of the officials, who like others insisted on anonymity to discuss internal government planning.

The campaign appears to fly in the face of the recommendations last December of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which urged President Bush to engage diplomatically with Syria to stabilize Iraq and address the Arab-Israeli conflict. The White House largely ignored that recommendation, agreeing only to talk with Syria about Iraqi refugees and to attend a Baghdad conference where envoys from Iran and Syria were present.

Some officials who are aware of the campaign say they fear its real aim is to weaken or even overthrow Assad and to ensure that he can't thwart the creation of an international tribunal to investigate the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A U.N. report has implicated Syrian and Lebanese officials in the murder.

The officials say the campaign bears the imprint of Elliott Abrams, a conservative White House aide in charge of pushing Bush's global democracy agenda.


Elliott Abrams--with the way Republicans rehabilitate their own, Kyle Sampson will be attorney general in 20 years.

Bud Cummins:

You only get one chance to hold on to your credibility. My team, which holds temporary custody of the Department of Justice, has blown it in this case. The Department of Justice will be paying for it for some time to come. Lots of sound investigations and convictions are now going to be questioned. That is a crying shame, because most of the 110,000 employees to whom the attorney general referred in a recent news conference, are neutral, nonpartisan public servants and do incredible work. A lot of President Bush's political appointees have done a lot of great work, too. Sadly, because of the damage done by this protracted scandal, which the administration has handled poorly at every turn, none of that good work is currently being recognized. And more ominously, the credibility of the Department of Justice may no longer be, either.

The case of Gitmo detainee David Hicks of Australia is a travesty on so many levels, but consider the following terms of his plea bargain:

The deal included a statement by Mr. Hicks that he “has never been illegally treated” while a captive, despite claims of beatings he had made in the past. It also included a promise not to pursue suits over the treatment he received while in detention and “not to communicate in any way with the media” for a year.

Critics said those requirements were a continuation of what they say has been a pattern of illegal detention policies. “It is a modern cutting out of his tongue,” said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy group, based in New York, that is coordinating the representation of detainees in many suits challenging Guantánamo detention.


What we have here is a plea bargain in which the government leverages its vast control over the life, liberty, and body of the defendant to obtain for itself a release from potential liability for its own conduct and a one-year protection from bad PR. Truth, justice, and the Gitmo way.

WaPo:

Federal prosecutors have told Bernard B. Kerik, whose nomination as homeland security secretary in 2004 ended in scandal, that he is likely to be charged with several felonies, including tax evasion and conspiracy to commit wiretapping.

Kerik's indictment could set the stage for a courtroom battle that would draw attention to Kerik's extensive business and political dealings with former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who personally recommended him to President Bush for the Cabinet. Giuliani, the front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination according to most polls, later called the recommendation a mistake.


Mistakes were made.

We learned more details today about the dismissal of Seattle-based U.S. Attorney John McKay.

The AP has put together a timeline of events surrounding McKay's dismissal which provides additional insights into why McKay was left off a list of nominees last year for an open federal district judgeship in Washington State even before the Department of Justice asked for his resignation as U.S. Attorney:

A close friend in the White House counsel's office - McKay won't say who - told him the administration believed Republican members of the judicial selection commission opposed him for not diligently investigating claims of voter fraud during the 2004 governor's election, which Republican Dino Rossi lost by 129 votes after two recounts.

"That was what they understood as being the reason I was not selected," McKay said. "That was the first I had heard inside the White House that they were concerned about this." . . .

McKay called Harriet Miers, then the White House counsel, in August and asked for an interview with the intent of correcting the record and making his case for the judgeship. . . .

Miers agreed to interview him. McKay met with her and other White House lawyers on Aug. 22.

Their first question, McKay said, was "Why would the Republicans oppose you?"


On today's Meet the Press, McKay repeated that version of events, telling Tim Russert, "[T]hey actually asked me why Republicans in the state of Washington would be angry with me." As the Washington Post noted this evening, that characterization of McKay's meeting with the Miers seems to further implicate the White House in a political purge:

McKay's disclosure of an explicit White House question about the damage his decision caused to his standing among party loyalists added new detail to his previous statement that Miers accused him of having "mishandled" the voter fraud inquiry.

The use of the phrase "mishandled" left open the possibility that White House officials -- who last September were weighing whether to recommend McKay for a federal judgeship -- merely disputed McKay's professional judgment. McKay's statement yesterday instead lent new credence to suspicions that partisan political concerns weighed heavily in his subsequent firing.


It probably didn't help McKay that many Washington State conservatives mistakenly thought he had worked for the Clinton Administration:

Known as “Johnny” to friends and family, John McKay served as president of the Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C., before being named U.S. attorney. The Legal Services Corp. was created by Congress in 1974 as a private nonprofit corporation to provide legal services to the poor.

Though McKay headed Legal Services Corp. during the Clinton administration, he wasn’t appointed by the president and didn’t work for the administration. Even so, Vance and others said the perception among conservatives was that McKay had worked for the Clinton administration.

“I knew who he was,” Tom McCabe, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington, said of John McKay. “He worked in the Clinton administration.”

McCabe was one of those who publicly called for McKay’s firing after he declined to investigate the governor’s race. The Republican-controlled Congress in the 1990s sought to eliminate the Legal Services Corp., and McKay worked with Gorton and Dicks, among others, to save it.

Tony Williams, Gorton’s former chief of staff, recalled that when passions were running high following the 2004 governor’s race, McKay’s connection to Legal Services and mistaken connection to the Clinton administration raised some eyebrows in conservative circles.

“If people Googled him and saw he ran Legal Services … I can only imagine what my more conservative friends thought,” Williams said.


One can only imagine.

The politicization of the Justice Department has been especially acute in the Civil Rights Division, an issue we explored at some length yesterday. Today's L.A. Times has more on the complaints coming from veteran lawyers in that division:

"The political decision-making process that led to the dismissal of eight United States attorneys was standard practice in the Civil Rights Division years before these revelations," Joseph D. Rich, recently retired head of the division's voting rights section, said in a sparsely attended House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing last week.

"This connection should not be minimized," he said. . . .

Rich, a 37-year department veteran, said a partisan litmus test in hiring and decision-making has undermined a tradition of nonpartisan professionalism in the division.

"Unfortunately, since this administration took office, that professionalism and nonpartisan commitment to the historic mission of the division has been replaced by unprecedented political decision-making," he told the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties on Thursday.


Another Bush legacy: partial justice, which is no justice at all.

Let's go back to comments Karl Rove made on March 15 about the U.S. Attorney scandal:

When we came in in 2001, we reviewed all 93 U.S. Attorneys and over the course of time, replaced virtually all of them with appointees by the president… not all: several appointees were involved in high profile cases, important investigations, and as a result, even though they were appointees of the previous administration, we left them in office for, in some instances, years.


Let's assume that's true (and I seem to recall that Mary Jo White, in the Southern District of New York, may have been one of those handling several high-profile cases who stayed on for a time after Bush took office). It would certainly be good practice to take into account the status of investigations, especially important high-profile investigations, before potentially disrupting those investigations by replacing a U.S. Attorney.

If the Bush Administration took into account the status of ongoing investigations when removing U.S. Attorneys back in 2001, then surely it continued that practice this time around with the purge of the Gonzales 8, right? After all, Carol Lam's Duke Cunningham investigation, and its spin-off cases, is among the highest-profile congressional corruption investigations since ABSCAM. It is a sprawling probe that led into the CIA and into the congressional appropriations process which was so thoroughly corrupted under Republican rule.

But in the documents released by the Justice Department which I have reviewed, I have not seen any sort of reference to the impact of the dismissals on ongoing investigations. No mention of it being taken into consideration. No sign of internal discussions about ensuring that the continuity of the investigations were maintained. No reference to deliberations over the allocation of manpower and resources. In short, nothing to suggest that disrupting major high-profile investigations was an outcome to be avoided.

In fairness, DOJ would probably have grounds for not releasing to Congress any information pertaining to ongoing criminal investigations, so I would not necessarily expect to see any case-specific discussions in the documents released thus far. But you would expect to see some discussions generally of how to handle the effect of these dismissals on the operations of the department and its U.S. Attorney offices. (For TPM readers still making their way through the latest document dump, please be on the lookout for any such documents.) In contrast, the documents reveal extensive internal discussions of how to manage the political consequences of the dismissals.

Lots of attention has rightly been paid to another dog that did not bark: the lack of a department paper trail for the alleged "performance-related problems" that the officials claim were the basis for the dismissals. But in a scandal where the worst suspicion is that the dismissals were intended to impede ongoing public corruption investigations of Republicans, the absence in the record of any reference to the effect the dismissals might have on those investigations seems like a particularly glaring omission.

On a related note, the fact that Carol Lam was one of the dismissed U.S. Attorneys makes Alberto Gonzales' self-professed distance from the process all the more curious. Might the attorney general not want some input on the dismissal of the prosecutor handling one his department's most important cases? As Chuck Schumer has said, either Gonzales knew about the purge and sanctioned it, which is bad, or he didn't know about it, which is worse.

What is not in the DOJ documents may say as much about this scandal as what is there.

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