The U.S. attorney purge and Watergate

During Watergate, one would sometimes hear a certain volume of complaint: Sure, there was a petty burglary at the Democratic headquarters — but why was that such a big deal? Didn’t the government have more important things to worry about? Didn’t we know there was a war on?

Of course, as eventually became clear, the little breakin at the Watergate Hotel was the tip of an iceberg of corruption and fraud. And that lawbreaking wasn’t random or motiveless; it was centered on the aggressive rigging of a national presidential election. Watergate’s collective menagerie of petty evils insured that Nixon would be re-elected. That was the grand crime: subversion of the democratic process.

As the implosion of the Gonzales Justice Department continues, it’s important to keep that history in mind. Right now we’re still hearing the protests: This was just about firing a few political appointees! They weren’t following the White House’s wishes! Bush wanted them to root out election fraud, and they weren’t getting with the program! Why are we troubling ourselves over this stuff? Don’t we know there’s a war on?

In the U.S. attorney purge scandal as with Watergate, the “it’s just not a big deal” defense is collapsing — only faster this time. To understand why you only need a handful of facts.

Every president appoints U.S. attorneys, and some (like Clinton) have fired the previous administration’s appointees en masse and replaced them. But the selective firing of a large group in the middle of a president’s term is unprecedented, sowing doubt about motives. And the Justice Department’s Keystone-Kops-like effort to justify the dismissals, using multiple contradictory reasons, has only fed suspicions.

U.S. attorneys are prosecutors who have enormous latitude and power to go after potential wrongdoing. They operate under the Justice Department’s direction but they have a tradition of independence, and both parties agree that they should be insulated from political pressure. They are political appointees — not political operatives.

The evidence continues to mount that the purged attorneys — loyal Republicans and Bush appointees all — were fired because (a) they weren’t aggressively pursuing an agenda of “cracking down on election fraud” that was a cornerstone of Karl Rove’s long-term strategy and (b) Rove wanted to ease them out so some of his young-turk up-and-comers could pad their resumes before the Bush administration sinks into its terminal mire.

At this point it sounds like we’re just dealing with some ugly political hardball. But as Josh Marshall (whose site has been a font of reporting and insight on this story from the beginning) has argued, the whole “election fraud” dimension has fouler partisan implications.

“Cracking down on electoral fraud” is a GOP code phrase; in practice, it means finding ways to keep poor and minority voters away from the polls. Two lengthy New York Times pieces — yesterday’s and today’s — have chronicled how little fire there is behind the GOP “election fraud” smoke. Gonzales and Rove kept pushing their U.S. attorneys to trump up election fraud cases, even as impartial or bipartisan investigations poking into these charges kept coming up empty.

We don’t know at this point whether the hit list of fired attorneys actually included prosecutors who’d been pushed to pursue such cases and refused — or whether the charge of “failing to crack down on election fraud” was simply an entirely fabricated excuse for a political purge. Conveniently, the same hit list included other attorneys, like San Diego’s Carol Lam, who were successfully prosecuting Republican officials in cases of appalling corruption and fraud. Under these circumstances, one shudders to think what we’re going to learn about what the “loyal Bushie” prosecutors had to do to keep their names off the hit list.

Notice the priorities: Under Rove and Gonzales, your job as prosecutor was to go after the indigent and the illiterate who goofed somewhere on their election registrations. But if you went after actual extortionists and bribe-takers like disgraced former congressman Duke Cunningham, you faced the ax.

Or maybe it’s not that simple: the typical prosecutor handles a vast caseload. It’s quite likely that each name on the purge hit list will ultimately prove to have its own set of complex circumstances. It’s even possible — though I think highly doubtful — that the reasons for Lam’s firing aren’t as nefarious as they look.

The point is, we can’t and won’t know until we have the facts. And now the White House is digging in its heels, invoking executive privilege and conveniently losing e-mail troves in what is increasingly looking like a vast cover-up. So we’re in for a long fight. But it’s worth the effort given what’s at stake.

The damage is already done: the selective U.S. attorney purge means that for years to come a cloud will hang over every federal prosecution that involves either party. Thanks to what Gonzales and Rove have achieved — the abject politicization of the American justice system in pursuit of partisan goals — we’ll always be wondering: Were those charged brought because a prosecutor found evidence — or because a political campaign needed help?

So the next time you hear someone carping that the attorney scandal is overblown? Remember that, like Watergate before it, its small details add up to something significant: a White House-led assault on the integrity of elections.

UPDATE: Marshall has much more on the election-fraud fraud here:

Republican party officials and elected officials use bogus claims of vote fraud to do three things: 1) to stymie voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts in poor and minority neighborhoods, 2) purge voter rolls of legitimate voters and 3) institute voter ID laws aimed at making it harder for low-income and minority voters to vote. This sounds like hyperbole but it is simply the truth.

[tags]u.s. attorneys, alberto gonzales, karl rove, election fraud[/tags]

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  1. Nancy

    it’s all unraveling but who replaces Gonzo ? Some Rove Pick no doubt. My bet is not on Fitz. Someone will gladly take it for the resume perk. Look around for a very conservative and Ultra Christian value State Attourney General. Thye never seem to run out of patsies.

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