No Comment — August 8, 2008, 9:55 am

The Justice Department’s Truthiness Problem

“Truthiness,” a phrase coined by the comic Stephen Colbert, has emerged as one of the hallmarks of the Bush Administration. Truthiness, Colbert tells us, is something a government spokesperson knows “from the gut”–without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. “Truthiness” has the outward appearance of truth. However, statements offered as “truthiness” are invariably false. Worse, the person who utters them usually knows they are false. But telling lies and getting away with it is a political art form. Call it the art of “truthiness.”

The Bush Justice Department has a huge truthiness problem. This helps explain why public confidence in the Justice Department just reached an all-time low point. Americans now have more confidence in the integrity and reliability of Post Office employees than they do in federal prosecutors and FBI agents. But is the Justice Department going to start coming to grips with its “truthiness” problem, or will it just plod along through inauguration day, 2009?

The clock is ticking on a series of important internal investigations. In recent weeks the public has gotten important details about a Bush Administration effort to pack the career-level ranks of the Justice Department with political hacks, in violation of laws protecting the integrity of the civil service. The Inspector General concluded that two figures, Kyle Sampson and Monica Goodling, both trusted acolytes of Karl Rove, implemented this program, successfully hiring dozens of hacks for the Justice Department and firing or passing over career employees for a variety of illegal and unethical reasons. They were enabled in the process by an unprecedented sweeping authorization given them by Alberto Gonzales–an authorization designed to give Gonzales himself plausible deniability with respect to an illegal, and possibly criminal exercise.

In one case a former U.S. attorney was taken down based on unsubstantiated (and false) rumors that she was a lesbian. In another a prosecutor lost a promotion when it became known that he was married to a known Democrat. In a third an individual in an unguarded moment let slip some words of praise for Condoleezza Rice. True, Condi is a prominent Republican and a loyal Bushie to the core. But Monica Goodling found this expression of loyalty disturbing. After all, Condi supported abortion rights. The level of political vindictiveness that dominated this process of hiring and firing is astonishing—though not to those who have closely tracked developments at Justice over the last seven years.

In her recent book, Dark Side, Jane Mayer interviews senior political appointees, all card-carrying Republican conservatives with long records of faithful service to the Republican Party, who describe the atmosphere of fear and intimidation which the White House had carefully cultivated in the nation’s erstwhile temple of justice. The message was clear: the Justice Department existed to do the White House’s political bidding. Any suggestion of independence or fidelity to the law would be rudely crushed. Many were convinced their phones were being tapped illegally. Some even feared that they might be targeted for a hit or “accidentally” run over by a truck (the favored tactic of the Ukrainian mafiosi with whom Karl Rove was seen hobnobbing at Yalta only a few weeks ago). Any hint of caution about the White House’s agenda would be enough to destroy a career. This is the environment in which the Justice Department launched roughly six criminal probes into Democratic political figures for every one targeting a Republican. It was a Justice Department hijacked and converted into a partisan political attack machine.

Still, the Inspector General’s report concluded that the hacks were there to stay. Glenn Fine took a “forgive and forget” attitude towards the perpetrators, recommending no criminal action against them, though that was plainly a viable option. And most disturbingly, the Inspector General report stopped with Sampson and Goodling, not venturing to peel back the curtain to look at the person who trained them and for whom they were working: Karl Rove.

On another front, Justice’s internal probe of a corrupt and politically motivated series of prosecutions and lawsuits targeting prominent Democratic politicians in Missouri continues. Former senior officers of the department have engaged criminal defense counsel and refused all cooperation with the probe. It’s fairly clear that at least one of them made false statements to Congress, and possibly to other investigators—potential felonies. Yesterday Murray Waas noted that grand jury subpoenas had been issued to Bradley Schlozman and Hans von Spakovsky, two G.O.P. operatives who served in high positions in the Bush Justice Department and who consistently instigated schemes designed to suppress the voter turnout of minorities and other likely Democratic constituencies, and bullied and pressured U.S. attorneys around the country to implement their schemes, with high-level backing. Schlozman was the man in charge of the Justice Department’s voting rights policy for key periods, then went into the field to serve as U.S. Attorney in Kansas City, when the U.S. attorney there refused his directions to launch a series of bogus lawsuits. Alabama-born Spakovsky has long been a key G.O.P. vote suppression expert. He worked closely with Schlozman, and was recently nominated by President Bush for service on the Federal Election Commission—a nomination pronounced dead on arrival in the Senate, which proceeded to stay open to block Bush from making a threatened recess appointment.

In other administrations, the fact that two senior Justice Department officers were refusing to cooperate with a criminal probe would be shocking news. The fact that they had to be subpoenaed to answer questions about their official conduct at the Justice Department would grab headlines. For the Bush Justice Department, however, it’s just another day, hardly any different from those that preceded or will follow it. Indeed, the sense among senior Justice staff with whom I have spoken is that Schlozman and Spakovsky are, relatively speaking, small frye. The focus remains on the investigation of the U.S. attorneys’ scandal, which involves serious allegations of wrongdoing and the prospect of a criminal probe of the Department’s four most senior political appointees, starting with Attorney General Gonzales. Still the real focus of inquiries into the scandal is not on the Justice Department at all, but rather its former political puppetmaster, Karl Rove.

The Inspector General’s report on the U.S. attorney’s scandal is due to be released before Labor Day, the traditional start of the presidential campaign. Any later than that and it risks becoming too much a front-and-center aspect of the election campaign, which would hardly serve the interest that every sober observer now recognizes in a less political Justice Department.

Today we learn that the Inspector General’s report is taking a focus, as expected, on the White House’s role in improperly directing Justice Department decisions. And the initial focus will fall squarely on the Justice Department’s sprawling “truthiness” problem. As the U.S. attorneys’ scandal unfolded, Justice Department spokesmen, and senior figures, issued a series of aggressive statements dismissing concerns and directing attention away from the White House. The Inspector General’s team is learning that more often than not, the denials of White House involvement were in fact authored inside the White House by individuals who knew the statements were not true.

A key initial chapter goes to a February 23, 2007 letter that the Justice Department sent in response to Congressional inquiries. Congress was trying to learn what role Karl Rove had played in the decision to sack the U.S. attorneys, and it was focusing in on the appointment of Rove’s deputy, Tim Griffin, to be the new U.S. attorney in Little Rock. Griffin had no credentials as a federal prosecutor. On the other hand, Griffin had great skills in partisan trench warfare, and was often identified as a key expert in the craft of “voter caging,” a legally dubious technique used by Rove to suppress minority voter turnout in battleground states.

The Justice Department letter stated that “The department is not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin.” It continued the Justice Department was “not aware of anyone lobbying, either inside or outside of the administration, for Mr. Griffin’s appointment.” These statements appear to be knowing falsehoods transmitted for purposes of obstructing the Congressional investigation. In fact the appointment of Griffin had come at Karl Rove’s behest, implemented over push back from the Department itself. Yet these false statements were issued in the name of the Justice Department. But who was responsible?

As Murray Waas reports today, federal investigators have now learned that the February 23 letter was the joint product of Kyle Sampson, Karl Rove’s former assistant, dubbed the “mini-Rove” by his co-workers, who moved to Justice with Alberto Gonzales, and a White House lawyer. At Justice, Sampson served as one of Rove’s principal cat’s paws. His co-author was Chris Oprison, then an associate general counsel at the White House, working under the nominal supervision of Harriet Miers, but in fact working closely with Rove. In other words, the Justice Department’s denial of White House involvement was actually authored by White House figures close to Karl Rove who had personal, direct knowledge that the statements they were making were false.

This is but one strand of a story which leads with increasing clarity directly to the White House, and straight to the office of Karl Rove.

The latest disclosures bring a focus on one issue that the Inspector General will have to address: the persistence of Justice Department “truthiness.” By the sterner view, it is obstruction of a Congressional investigation and lying to Congress: acts which warrant a criminal investigation, possible felony prosecution, and professional disciplinary measures for attorneys, possibly including disbarment. But the prevailing view inside of Justice today is different. It holds that there’s nothing wrong with telling fibs to Congress—it’s all part of the game. If the report takes the path that the latest disclosures suggest, then it will point clearly to the need for a special prosecutor, a person of unquestioned integrity and ability, to make decisions about the indictment and prosecution of Mr. Rove and the immediate past top leadership of the Bush Justice Department. Mukasey has firmly resisted such calls so far, but in doing so he has put his own reputation at risk.

Michael Mukasey tells us that he wants to restore integrity to the Justice Department. That would start with respect for the truth. But Mukasey has made Brian Roehrkasse—an outrageous and well-documented vendor of falsehoods–his principal public relations officer. And yesterday he took a further step down the same road by appointing as his new chief of staff Brian Benczkowski, another political flak best know for defending torture and for a falsehood-laden letter he delivered to Congress defending misbehaving prosecutors. When the report on the U.S. attorneys’ scandal surfaces, the Justice Department response will most likely be managed by Roehrkasse and Benczkowski, two individuals who should be right in the spotlight of the controversy. At Mukasey’s Justice Department the drawbridge is going up, and the battlements are being manned by the agents of “truthiness.” Truth is about to attempt to recapture the Justice Department. And the institution’s reputation and future hang in the balance.

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