Send DoJ bumblers packing

The combination of arrogance and incompetence on display at the Department of Justice boggles the mind. The attorney general, his hapless but conniving deputy and everyone associated with the two of them ought to be sent packing for the very reasons they claim they sacked the now-infamous eight U.S. attorneys: “performance issues.”

When Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty went before Congress and created the firing controversy that is now consuming so much newsprint and airtime, he kicked off a display of bumbling incoherence that has yet to end. Rather than simply stating that 1) the appointment of U.S. attorneys is an exclusive political prerogative of the president; 2) the president had decided to replace some of those he had previously appointed and was in the process of doing so; 3) the president and the Justice Department appreciated the good work of those being replaced and the decision to replace them was not to be taken as any reflection on their performance as part of the administration’s team; and 4) he was not prepared to go beyond this, McNulty instead tied the changes to the performance — or lack thereof — of those being fired.

This, as is now obvious, was stupid. The administration has the absolute right to hire and fire political appointees such as U.S. attorneys. They have always had that right, and any of those Democrats complaining today would insist on it for themselves or one of their colleagues should they win the White House in next fall’s elections. As President Clinton’s successful firing of a U.S. attorney actively investigating a sitting Democratic member of Congress demonstrated, this power is subject to few restrictions.

The attorney general moved quickly to compound McNulty’s goofiness, attempting to quiet the political firestorm touched off by his deputy by providing numerous conflicting versions of what happened and why as well as his role in the whole thing. His ultimate defense, of course, is that he has no idea of what goes on around him and can hardly be held responsible for the mistakes of his staff or, indeed, anyone else at the Department.

At one point, he likened himself to the CEO of a large corporation who just cannot know what everyone in the corporation is doing. That is, of course, perfectly true as far as it goes. What he failed to note is that in the real world such CEOs are held accountable for the stupidity of their underlings even when they neither knew nor authorized the stupidity. In fact, such hapless businessmen are often held accountable in this way by lawyers employed by his department.

The same rule should apply here. Gonzales and his boys have managed to mismanage far more than the firing of a few political appointees. They have created the illusion of wrongdoing out of whole cloth, lied to Congress and the media in the process, embarrassed the president of the United States and his supporters in Congress and proven themselves unsuited to hold the jobs entrusted to them.

The real story within this story, however, reflects badly not just on the Department of Justice and the administration, but on the Congress as well. At one point, the administration considered using a hitherto unnoticed section of the USA Patriot Act that would allow the fired U.S. attorneys’ replacements to take their jobs without Senate confirmation. Prior to the passage of the Patriot Act after Sept. 11, 2001, when a U.S. attorney died, resigned or was fired, the federal court in the jurisdiction for which he or she was responsible would recognize one of the assistant U.S. attorneys as “acting” until the president appointed and the Senate confirmed a successor.

The attorney general says that no one seems to know who authored the change when the Patriot Act was drafted; those in Congress who voted for it defend themselves by noting that the bill was long and went mostly unread by those who voted for it. In other words, no one was willing to take credit for a major change in the way the justice system functions. Congress quickly “corrected” the problem by repealing the offending language and went back to pillorying the administration.

It would seem, however, that this whole incident has exposed enough incompetence to tar everyone involved. Further embarrassment should be avoided, the president should get rid of the incompetents who allow his critics to charge him with incompetence and his critics ought to get back to the serious problems facing the nation, rather than wasting time trying to create imaginary conspiracies out of the foolishness of nincompoops.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).