Firing the U.S. attorneys is just a small part of it
Last week's Alberto Gonzales Show meant many different things to many different people, but to some of the more thoughtful observers, its biggest impact was to illustrate how politicized the Justice Department has become under Bush. An article today on law.com explains:
In addition, the hearing threw light on a policy that appears to have allowed the Justice Department and the White House to become much more closely linked structurally during the Bush administration -- in a way perhaps unmatched since the Watergate era. The change was highlighted during questioning late in the day by [Sen. Sheldon] Whitehouse, himself a former U.S. Attorney and the most junior member of the panel.Karl Rove's running the federal grand juries now, it seems.
Whitehouse highlighted two memos -- one written in 1994 by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, and another written in 2002 by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft -- that defined the channels through which the White House and the Justice Department could discuss criminal investigations.
Reno's memo,... addressed to Lloyd Cutler, then special counsel to the president, said, "Initial communications between the White House and the Justice Department regarding any pending Department investigation or criminal or civil case" could take place only among a handful of senior officials.
At the Justice Department, the only officials authorized to have such discussions were the three highest-ranking officials: the attorney general, the deputy attorney general and the associate attorney general. The only officials they were authorized to speak with about such matters at the White House were the president, the vice president, and the White House counsel and deputy counsel.
But, says one former Reno Justice Department official, that memo merely memorialized Justice Department tradition....
But the policy was changed in April 2002, when Ashcroft issued a revised memo dramatically expanding the number of employees at both the White House and the Justice Department who could discuss criminal investigations. Ashcroft's memo, in effect, stated that at the Justice Department, not only the attorney general and deputy attorney general but members of their staff, as well, would be allowed to discuss criminal investigations with the White House. Likewise, at the White House, lower-ranking officials in the Offices of the President, the Vice President and the White House Counsel would be permitted to be party to such discussions.
At the Justice Department, the memo expanded the number of officials authorized to have these discussions from three to more than 30. And at the White House, it expanded the figure from four to more than 100. Under Ashcroft and now Gonzales, junior political aides -- at both Justice and the White House -- have had authorization to discuss ongoing criminal matters.
"The way this policy reads, an intern in the office of the deputy attorney general could be communicating about case-related information to an intern at the White House Counsel's Office," [former Justice staffer Nicholas] Gess says.
Once again, Bush makes Nixon look good by comparison.
UPDATE, 5:00 p.m.: For more discussion, and a very damning chart showing the breadth of the change discussed in this post, go here.