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Jeffrey Toobin has written a beautiful, but very worrying, piece in the current New Yorker. It’s more than competent reporting; it can stand as a monument to a dedicated career prosecutor. Tom Wales worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle for fourteen years, with a long string of accomplishments to his credit. He gave the sort of selfless, courageous public service that made the Department of Justice an important institution and garnered public respect for it across the nation. And then the Bush Administration arrived. Tom Wales was murdered in the line of work on an important prosecution.
Now you’d expect the Justice Department to pull in and express its concern about the loss, and then get up and do something about it. The cold-blooded murder of a law enforcement official is a particularly heinous crime, one which strikes at the basic fiber of our rule of law culture. But for the Bush Justice Department, it was something to be brushed off. You see, Wales was under suspicion of not being a “loyal Bushie”! Moreover, he had been a public opponent of the legalization of handguns. So the political bosses in the Bush Justice department just couldn’t get worked up about his murder. (See, the value of human lives in our society is not equal; evidently, the value of the lives of those of us who are not “loyal Bushies” is decidedly depreciated).
Toobin’s account is moving and left me even more impressed with John McKay, a career Republican, and an all around superb lawyer and decent person. Which is exactly why Karl Rove, Harriet Miers and their team were apparently so eager to get rid of him:
By all accounts, John McKay was a successful U.S. Attorney in Seattle. He reorganized the office, increased the number of prosecutions, and improved morale. At the annual meetings of all U.S. Attorneys, McKay made a point of mentioning Wales. “Once a year, I stood up in front of my colleagues and talked about Tom Wales,” McKay said. “He was murdered, and he was murdered in the line of duty. Most of my colleagues really welcomed that. I felt it was my job to do it.” James Comey, who succeeded Thompson as Deputy Attorney General under Ashcroft, testified before Congress earlier this year that McKay “was excellent, in my experience. I had worked with him, as with the others, as a peer when I was U.S. Attorney in Manhattan and then as the Deputy Attorney General. So I had a very positive sense of John McKay.” On September 22, 2006, McKay’s office received a glowing evaluation from the Department of Justice. On December 7th, McKay, along with six other U.S. Attorneys, was fired.
The dismissals of the U.S. Attorneys soon became a national story, and Alberto Gonzales, the Attorney General, and other Administration officials have struggled to explain the reasons for the firings. Gonzales, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April, had little to say about McKay. To the best of his recollection, Gonzales said, McKay was fired because of his aggressive advocacy, in August, 2006, of an information-sharing system for federal prosecutors and for his complaints in a September 22, 2006, story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about budgetary constraints in the Seattle office. (McKay ran a pilot program for the Law Enforcement Information Exchange, a Justice Department initiative that allows state and federal investigators to share information. The program has since been expanded.)
Gonzales’s justifications for McKay’s dismissal now seem unlikely to be true, because it has become clear that Justice Department officials were seeking to fire McKay before 2006. On March 2, 2005, Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’s chief of staff, included McKay’s name on a list of thirteen U.S. Attorneys to be fired, in an e-mail to Harriet Miers, the White House counsel. Sampson sent the e-mail four months after the 2004 elections, and after McKay decided not to bring charges against the Democratic Party, or people affiliated with it, in Washington State, in the wake of a narrow victory by Christine Gregoire, the Democratic candidate, in the governor’s race. The contest, which was resolved after two recounts, prompted a lawsuit by the state Republican Party alleging widespread voting irregularities.
Several of the fired U.S. Attorneys had declined to prosecute Democrats in electoral disputes. Many Democrats have suggested that the prosecutors were dismissed by Gonzales and the Bush White House in retaliation for failing to advance Republican political objectives. But, in a deposition before the House Judiciary Committee in April, Sampson offered another explanation for McKay’s dismissal. He said that McKay might have been fired because he had been too aggressive in his advocacy of the investigation of Tom Wales’s murder. Sampson testified that McKay had approached Larry Thompson, then the Deputy Attorney General, and demanded that he “take some action” on the investigation, and that subsequently there had been tension between the two men. (“I don’t remember being mad at John McKay,” Thompson told me. “We always had to do balancing acts about how to allocate resources, but I never thought John acted inappropriately in the Wales case.” McKay said, “Larry Thompson was extremely supportive of the Wales investigation, and of me personally. I’m unaware of there having been any criticism.”)
Sampson’s testimony caused a sensation in Seattle. “The idea that I was pushing too hard to investigate the assassination of a federal prosecutor—it’s mind-numbing,” McKay told reporters at the time. “If it’s true, it’s just immoral, and if it’s false, then the idea that they would use the death of Tom Wales to cover up what they did is just unconscionable.” After news of Sampson’s statements broke, six Democratic congressmen from Washington State wrote to Glenn A. Fine, the inspector general of the Justice Department, who had begun an inquiry into the firings, asking that he investigate whether “Mr. McKay’s removal may have been related to his zealous advocacy for increased Justice Department attention to the murder of Tom Wales.”
The inference is clear: McKay got sacked because he refused to pursue politically directed prosecutions of Democrats, and because he was troubled about the murder of Tom Wales. McKay didn’t understand. This is not a Justice Department committed to equal justice under law. Hold “equal,” and hold “justice.” This is a Justice Department committed to deepening and securing the political power of the Republican Party and its leadership. It is a tool of tyranny. It has no respect for Tom Wales. And no patriotic American should have any respect for it.
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Notes on South Africa’s failed revolution
“I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us.”