Chicago Tribune Editorial - Gonzales' amnesia
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published April 1, 2007
When the Justice Department relieved eight U.S. attorneys last year, critics claimed politics was the motive, and considerable evidence has accumulated to confirm those suspicions. What made Democrats suspicious was a provision added to the USA Patriot Act giving the president the power to fill such vacancies without going through Senate confirmation. That appeared to give the president a blank check.
For those worried about the implications of the change, it came as a relief when Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales assured the Senate Judiciary Committee in January that the worries were entirely unfounded. "I am fully committed, as the administration's fully committed, to ensure that with every United States attorney position in this country, we will have a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed United States attorney," he testified, leaving himself no wiggle room.
He went on to assert that a federal prosecutor "has greater imprimatur of authority, if in fact that person's been confirmed by the Senate." When a skeptical Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) insisted that every appointee should go before the committee for evaluation, he replied, "I agree with you."
But that was two months ago, and since then Gonzales seems to have been afflicted with amnesia. What he promised is quite different from what is happening. Of all the federal prosecutors on the job, one-fifth of them were not confirmed by the Senate. The Senate has received no nominations for 17 outstanding vacancies, including the eight that have gotten so much attention.
Feinstein is perturbed. "For over 150 years, the process of appointing interim U.S. attorneys has worked with virtually no problems," she declared in early March. "Now, just one year after receiving unchecked authority in a little-known section added to the Patriot Act last spring, the administration has significantly abused its discretion."
The Justice Department says the delays are of normal duration for filling these jobs. But even Republican senators like John Kyl of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have expressed frustration with the administration's handling of the process.
One of the interesting discoveries among the documents recently released by the department, however, are some validating the original fears. While serving as Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson advocated using the Patriot Act's authority to install Timothy Griffin, a former aide to Karl Rove, as a U.S. attorney in Arkansas, asking: "If we don't ever exercise it, what's the point of having it?"
If senators objected, he wrote in one e-mail: "I think we should gum this to death. Ask the senators to give Tim a chance, meet with him, give him some time in office to see how he performs, etc. ... and otherwise run out the clock. All this should be done in 'good faith' of course."
As it happens, Gonzales may not have that power much longer. Last week, the Senate passed a bill repealing the provision. But he doesn't have to wait for House action to refresh his memory and keep his promise.