U.S. attorney scandal update: Who's to blame for those alarming Patriot Act revisions?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
March 5 2007 6:58 PM

Specter Detector

U.S. attorney scandal update: Who's to blame for those alarming Patriot Act revisions?

Listen to the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Arlen Specter. Click image to expand.
Sen. Arlen Specter

The U.S. attorneys purge scandal is heating up. The House and Senate have convened hearings for Tuesday, promising an orgy of named names and pointed fingers. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., now admits what he once denied: that he may have had a hand in the removal of New Mexico's U.S. attorney. And the senior Justice Department official who personally canned the U.S. attorneys has just announced the date of his resignation.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

But as the political scandal spreads, the question at its heart gets less and less public attention: Who changed the Patriot Act to make it easier to replace U.S. attorneys without oversight, and how did it happen with nobody looking?

Advertisement

U.S. attorneys are well aware that they serve at the president's pleasure, but new wording in the Patriot Act made it worth the president's while to fire a big, fat lot of them and hire a group of new ones. And while certainly half the scandal is that the Justice Department did that—let eight U.S. attorneys go, seemingly for no reason—we seem to have forgotten that even without the mass firings, this law had been changed in the sneakiest way imaginable.

The background: When Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act last year, it included little-noticed language that changed the way U.S. attorneys would be appointed if their predecessors were removed in the middle of their term. Under the old regime, interim U.S. attorneys needed to be confirmed by the Senate after 120 days. If they weren't, federal district judges could select their replacement. The new language removed both judicial and congressional oversight of the interim U.S. attorneys, letting DOJ anoint them indefinitely. This served three important goals: consolidating presidential power, diminishing oversight, and ensuring that "interim" prosecutors had permanent jobs.

On Feb. 6, when the Senate held hearings on the issue of prosecutorial independence, former judiciary committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., proudly claimed to have been as clueless as the rest of us. Denying New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer's claim that he or his staff had "slipped the new provision into the Patriot Act in the dead of night," Specter asserted, "The first I found out about the change in the Patriot Act occurred a few weeks ago when Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein approached me on the floor."

Specter added that he only looked into how the provision was altered after Feinstein told him about it. As he explained, "I then contacted my very able chief counsel, Michael O'Neill, to find out exactly what had happened. And Mr. O'Neill advised me that the requested change had come from the Department of Justice, that it had been handled by Brett Tolman, who is now the U.S. attorney for Utah, and that the change had been requested by the Department of Justice because there had been difficulty with the replacement of a U.S. attorney in South Dakota."

Thus, at least according to Specter, O'Neill had merely been following orders from the Department of Justice when he snuck new language into the Patriot Act that would consolidate executive branch authority. Huge relief there.

TODAY IN SLATE

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Politics

The Right to Run

If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 2:05 PM Paul Farmer Says Up to Ninety Percent of Those Infected Should Survive Ebola. Is He Right?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 4:10 PM Skinny Mark Wahlberg Goes for an Oscar: The First Trailer for The Gambler
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.