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Pay No Attention to the Man Behind The Curtain

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Alberto Gonzales’s prepared remarks, just released to the House Judiciary Committee, contain a strained plea. It’s time for Congress to move on, he says, and stop obsessing about all this criminal conduct by figures at the top of the Justice Department.

“Recent events must not deter us from our mission,” Gonzales said. “I ask the committee to join me in that commitment and that rededication.”

But the remarks themselves are a retread. Ninety percent of the text is identical to Gonzales’s submission to the Senate Judiciary Committee in preparation for his testimony on April 17.

The more fundamental problem with this plea to “move on” is that the American public, Congress, and Alberto Gonzales have a very different conception of Gonzales’s mission. The public and Congress believe that the Justice Department should be a disinterested enforcer of the law. Alberto Gonzales, a career political hack, believes in a “political spoils” approach to law enforcement. Gonzales and his core team believe that the machinery of justice should be bent to serve the electioneering objectives of Karl Rove, and to that end Democrats need to be prosecuted and a fraud needs to be perpetrated on the public and the courts about “voter fraud.”

In the end, the Gonzales-Rove Plan is a criminal enterprise crafted to thwart the Hatch Act, and it needs to be investigated and prosecuted. Who says so? A majority of the public. And, in an interview with the Seattle Times, two former Republican prosecutors, John McKay and David Iglesias. Career prosecutor McKay:

“I think there will be a criminal case that will come out of this,” McKay said during his meeting with Times journalists. “This is going to get worse, not better.” McKay cited ongoing investigations into the dismissals by the Senate and House Judiciary committees, and inquiries now under way by the Justice Department’s inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility.

McKay said he believes obstruction-of-justice charges will be filed if investigators conclude that the dismissal of any of the eight prosecutors was motivated by an attempt to influence ongoing public-corruption or voter-fraud investigations. McKay said he believes the strongest evidence of obstruction is related to the dismissals of Iglesias and Carol Lam, the former U.S. Attorney in San Diego.

I think that the inescapable necessity of criminal investigations and prosecutions is finally sinking in. The Bush Administration has held to a consistent pattern of conduct in such situations in the past: scapegoat the grunts and deny any liability up the chain. The “grunts” here are Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson. Gonzales maneuvered very skillfully in delegating everything to them in order to preserve a thin aura of deniability (which he will use exhaustively in his testimony today before the House Judiciary Committee). The best evidence of all this is the secret order delegating the power to hire and fire to Goodling and Sampson, which has just been made public.

My colleague Marty Lederman thinks this has been done so as to separate Paul J. McNulty and William Moschella from their traditional role in the hiring process. I am not so persuaded that he’s right about this, though he does make a strong case. It seems more likely to me that this is designed both to give the White House direct control, and to give Gonzales, McNulty and Moschella deniability. They will be able to argue that they just didn’t know, because Karl and the kids were running the show. That’s a sorry abdication of responsibility, of course, but perhaps the idea is to provide a firewall against legal liability. Their problem is that very few people are likely to believe their claims of detachment, particularly in light of the White House meeting at which Rove, McNulty, and Moschella agreed to “synchronize” their accounts in an effort to mislead Congress.

Either way, the high traditions of the department have been trashed with appalling results. But in the end this game of concealment and fabrication appears to have one great object: to protect Karl Rove. In the immortal words of the Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to the man behind that curtain.” It’s amazing just how effective that command is when directed to our weak-minded media.

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