Alberto Gonzales spends his last day in the office as Attorney General today. On Monday, Paul Clement assumes his duties as Acting Attorney General. As the Washington Post observes today, Gonzales’s passing is being taken with a collective sigh of relief among his own senior staff at Justice. His leadership, they suggest, has been a severe ordeal for the Justice Department. Of course, Patrick Leahy and Harry Reid are quick to remind that the ordeal is not over—Congress will continue to pursue the issues raised by the U.S. Attorney’s scandal, the growing evidence of political prosecutions, doubtful positions taken on FISA, highly coercive interrogations, Guantánamo and a host of other matters… not to mention the serious accusation that Gonzales committed perjury in giving testimony to Congress.
Nevertheless, parting words of a sort are appropriate. When I started writing about the swarm of ethics and other issues descending over the Justice Department, I found myself on the other end of a good amount of correspondence from serving and departed federal prosecutors. They furnished me with a number of leads which have been pursued over the last months, and strongly encouraged me to pursue and look into other matters that I was unsure of—particularly in Alabama, California and Mississippi (which will be the subject of a new series of posts starting next week). I was impressed with many of these writers—with their commitments to the high professional standards which have been the pride of the Justice Department, and their utter despair over the high volume of political sewage which has coursed through the Department since roughly 2002. Their voices are filled with indignation and anger about Gonzales and his wrecking crew, appropriately so. For a farewell to Gonzales, it is only appropriate to turn to one of these career prosecutors who understands the tradition and honor which the Bush Administration has so horribly ruined.
The best farewell piece in the media was authored by Robert T. Kennedy, a man who recently retired after working as a federal prosecutor for 28 years in Tucson, Arizona. He was commissioned by the Arizona Star to mark the occasion with some special thoughts. Here’s what he writes:
When I learned of the pending resignation of Alberto Gonzales, my initial reaction was a mixture of both sadness and relief. Sadness that the state of affairs at the once universally respected and revered Department of Justice had deteriorated so abysmally, but relief that perhaps this noble institution could begin to resurrect its historical role in our system of government as the defender of the rule of law, the Constitution and our civil liberties. . .
Like many of my brethren before and since, I wore the title of assistant U.S. attorney as a badge of honor. It is quite often the best job a lawyer will ever have. For some, their tenure as an assistant U.S. attorney is more than a career, it is a calling. Unfortunately, the pervasive and seemingly intractable allegations pertaining to Gonzales’ professional conduct as attorney general and former White House legal counsel have seriously undermined the public’s confidence that he has steadfastly honored that same oath.
For federal prosecutors, the rule of law has always been the touchstone in the performance of their duties. Accordingly, we were often reminded by Gonzales’ predecessors that any proposed radical departures from existing law or judicial precedent would require either congressional action or judicial review beforehand. . . Yet, it appears that Gonzales has not only sanctioned but actively encouraged radical departures from existing law, whether it concerns provisions of an international treaty intended, in part, to protect our own soldiers from torture, restrictions on electronic surveillance designed to curtail unjustified invasions of privacy or limitations on the indeterminate confinement of individuals without due process of law. . .
The coup de grâce has been the incredibly stupid, vindictive and mean-spirited dismissals of nine very competent and effective U.S. attorneys and Gonzales’ disingenuous statements intended to justify the sackings. During my career, I served under 10 prior attorneys general and a like number of U.S. attorneys in several regions of the country. Some were Democrats, most were Republicans. The majority had been active in party politics beforehand, but they all had a sufficient respect for the rule of law and the good sense to leave partisan politics at the door when they were sworn into office.
However, Alberto Gonzales did not, and that is the sad legacy that we all must now endure.
Two attorneys general in my lifetime (John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst) were indicted and convicted of serious crimes, one of perjury in statements to Congress. Yet Alberto Gonzales’s betrayal of his responsibilities as attorney general and his betrayal of the values that we have associated with the Justice Department make him easily the worst attorney general in America’s history, and the one who has most damaged the reputation of the institution. Good-bye, Fredo. But don’t forget that you still owe us a raft of explanations for what you’ve done. We look forward to seeing you back in the witness chair, no longer under the burdens of responsibility of the office of attorney general.