The more we learn about the purge of at least eight U.S. attorneys around the country, the bigger the mystery becomes. Not so much the "how" of it all: It's clear that GOP staffers slipped unnoticed language into the about-to-be-reauthorized Patriot Act to allow the Justice Department to fiddle with the nation's U.S. attorneys. The new language doesn't expand the attorney general's authority to fire these folks—they have always served at the president's pleasure and could always be sacked at will. But the new provision does ensure that the attorney general appoints their new "interim" replacements—and that the replacements don't have to be confirmed after 120 days by the Senate, as they used to be. Nor do federal judges get to name new U.S. attorneys should the Senate fail to confirm interim candidates, as used to happen. In short, both the Senate and the judges are out.
So the "how" of it is pretty straightforward: The DOJ figured out a way to slip party loyalists into high office without having to answer for it, and they proceeded to do so with gusto, canning eight apparently competent U.S. attorneys—six in a single day!—and replacing them with folks more willing to dance to the White House pipes. Certainly the scandal has its delicious aspects: All of those ousted evidently had positive job reviews, despite Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty's testimony that they were fired for "performance" reasons. Carol Lam was let go in San Diego, allegedly because she was successfully bringing down Republicans, including former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, in a bribery scandal. David Iglesias of New Mexico claims he was fired after he refused to succumb to pressure from two GOP members of Congress to rush the indictments in a Democratic political corruption case, before last November's election.
The cherry on top was replacement of Arkansas' H.E. "Bud" Cummins with Tim Griffin, whose chief qualification as the state's new federal prosecutor is his loyal service as opposition research director for Karl Rove and the RNC. Even Deputy Attorney General McNulty has conceded that Griffin got Cummins' old job, "not connected to … the performance of the incumbent, but more related to the opportunity to provide a fresh start with a new person in that position."
This kind of purge is legal but unprecedented. A recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service revealed that since 1981, no more than three U.S. attorneys had ever been forced out under similar circumstances. And now we have six in a day? What's going on?
What sort of colossal error in judgment led the DOJ to can a bunch of perfectly loyal and capable prosecutors, name permanent "interim" replacements under a sleazy legal loophole, then publicly impugn those who'd departed with the claim that they'd been fired for "performance-related" reasons? Did they really think nobody would notice? That nobody would care? Does some incredibly cunning long-term objective justify the short-term fallout? Or was this simply a case of bumbling incompetence?
A little digging on the subject leads me to conclude that it's a bit of both.
Last weekend, the New York Times' Adam Cohen made a start at analyzing why all this happened. He suggests that these were rational replacements motivated by cynical administration politics. Cohen offers three reasons for the purge:
2) Candidate grooming (The Bush administration is grooming Republican lawyers for higher office with sweet stepping-stone jobs.)
3) Presidential politics (an opposition researcher gets a prosecutor's gig in Arkansas right before Hillary Clinton's run for president. Sneaky.)
To Cohen's list of Creepy Bush Administration Endgames I'd add a few more:
1) It's a very short hop from a U.S. attorney gig to the federal bench. I wouldn't be surprised if Rove and Co.—who truly live to makeover the federal bench—were willing to suffer a little short-term political embarrassment in order to better situate some loyalists for future judgeships.
2) This administration really does see loyalty to the White House as inseparable from loyalty to the law. Historically, the frequent disputes between the DOJ and renegade U.S. attorneys were resolved through compromise. This president doesn't compromise with insubordinate subordinates. He fires them.
3) The conspiracy theorist in me cannot leave unmentioned the possibility that someone at the Bush White House—let's call him "David Addington"—does nothing all day but mark up legislation to diminish congressional and judicial oversight while increasing executive branch authority. Someone at the White House figured out that with a little Wite-Out and the distractions of the Christmas season, the president could remove both the federal judiciary and the Congress from the U.S. attorney appointments process.