Outside editorial: The attorney general relents

Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' backtracking on the appointment process for federal prosecutors in effect admits that the Bush administration was playing politics in firing eight U.S. attorneys.

Gonzales was called on the carpet late last week by an angry Senate Judiciary Committee. During the closed-door meeting, senators vented about Gonzales' shoddy treatment of the fired prosecutors.

When the meeting ended, Gonzales agreed to change the way that prosecutors can be replaced. He said the administration wouldn't oppose a bill taking away his power to appoint temporary U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation.

That's a start; but Congress still needs to find out why these eight prosecutors lost their jobs, and whether two Republican lawmakers from New Mexico exerted political pressure to get one prosecutor removed because he hadn't moved quickly enough to suit them in a probe of Democratic politicians.

An obscure amendment to the Patriot Act in 2006 allowed Gonzales to appoint interim prosecutors indefinitely without Senate approval. Using that new power, Gonzales fired eight prosecutors in various states, even though all had received good performance reviews. In Arkansas, one was replaced by a crony of presidential adviser Karl Rove.

The attorney general had referred to the issue as an "overblown personnel matter." It was much more than that. The firings were ham-handed, and they undermined public confidence that federal investigations around the nation are free from political interference.

Congress needs to find out why those eight prosecutors were fired. So far the Justice Department has not provided anything like a good answer.

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