Chicago Tribune Editorial - The man who was not there
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published April 24, 2007
In his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, it was sometimes hard to recall that Alberto Gonzales is the attorney general of the United States. More often, he sounded like an outside consultant, with no operational authority at the Justice Department and only a limited knowledge of what was going on in the offices around his. The difference is that when outside consultants are no longer of any use, they move on.
Alberto Gonzales has not, and it's time he did. His handling of the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year, something believed to be unprecedented at this stage of an administration, has been incompetent at best. Nothing he has done since the controversy erupted in January suggests he recognizes how he went wrong, how badly he failed or what to do about it. President Bush would be doing himself and the nation a favor to ask that his attorney resign and make room for someone who is interested in actually doing the job.
At the outset, we gave Gonzales the benefit of the doubt. We argued that there was only thin evidence that the U.S. attorneys were fired for improper reasons and that Congress had a duty to hear what Gonzales and his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, had to say before drawing any conclusions. Now, those two have been heard, and what they said confirms that the dismissals had little to do with improving law enforcement.
Getting rid of poorly performing employees is the obligation of any boss, and that is what the attorney general says he was doing. But Gonzales didn't seem to know -- or care -- whether the people he axed were good or bad.
Asked why he fired Margaret Chiara, after a meeting with an aide, he pleaded ignorance: "I don't recall the reason why that I accepted the decision on Dec. 7." Asked about a prosecutor whose dismissal was considered but rejected, he said: "This was a process that was ongoing that I did not have transparency into."
It would be unreasonable to expect the attorney general to undertake personally a review of all U.S. attorneys, but no one else appears to have done so either. There was no systematic process for evaluating the people in these jobs, and several of those who were removed had gotten good performance reviews in the past. Gonzales, based on his testimony last week, fired them without bothering to find out why.
An alternative view is that he knew very well why he was getting rid of at least some of these prosecutors: for naked partisan motives. David Iglesias landed on the list after Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) called Iglesias to complain about his failure to indict Democrats suspected of corruption -- and after the senator repeatedly complained to Gonzales as well. John McKay of Washington state was criticized by local Republicans over his refusal to pursue voter fraud allegations in a governor's race narrowly won by a Democrat.
It's not yet clear whether unsavory political motives played a role in the dismissals. The Judiciary Committee hopes to get testimony from White House senior adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to help resolve that important question.
But whether the decisions originated in the White House or the Justice Department, it is clear that Gonzales was largely a figurehead. When the important responsibilities of his office were being discharged, he was effectively absent.
In apologizing to the eight U.S. attorneys, he said, "They deserved better from me." They did, and the American people deserve someone better as attorney general.
Ps What took you so long!!!!