A mess at Justice

A MESS AT JUSTICE…. Dahlia Lithwick has a new piece exploring the mess Eric Holder is walking into as the next Attorney General. In the process, she summarizes the extent to which the “loyal Bushies” who’ve run the Justice Department over the last eight years have just trashed the place.

What Holder stands to inherit from Michael Mukasey and his predecessor Alberto Gonzales is not a Justice Department that was slightly confused about where the law began and politics ended. If confirmed, he will take over an institution where, at least in recent years, politics sometimes had no end. The department became fodder for late-night TV monologues in 2007 when former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his staff flimflammed their way through congressional hearings about the partisan firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Those independent prosecutors were let go for failing to be — in the parlance of Gonzales’ underage underlings — “loyal Bushies.” More than a dozen officials resigned in the wake of that scandal.

Things at Justice worsened with internal reports finding the department had hired career civil servants, law student interns, assistant U.S. attorneys, and even immigration judges based on their loyalty to the GOP. Secret memos produced by the department’s Office of Legal Counsel authorized brutal interrogation techniques and warrantless government eavesdropping. The subordination of law enforcement to politics led to the flight of career attorneys in the department’s Civil Rights Division and especially the Voting Section, where by 2007 reportedly between 55 percent to 60 percent had transferred or left the DoJ.

If the rot at Justice could have been cured by simply replacing Gonzales, the appointment of Michael Mukasey, a respected retired federal judge in 2007, might have been enough. It wasn’t. To be sure, Mukasey said noble things about the evils of torture and made moves toward disentangling the department from the White House. But more often than not, Mukasey declined to lance the boil. He refused to call water-boarding torture. He insisted no crimes were committed when department officials violated civil service laws. And he criticized those seeking accountability for the architects of the administration’s torture policy as “relentless,” “hostile,” and “unforgiving.” Mukasey collapsed while giving a speech this past week, but thankfully the incident seems not to have been serious.

It’s fair to say there isn’t a single cabinet agency that’s better now than when Bush took office — better managed, better organized, more efficient, more competent — but to see what the Bush gang has done to the Justice Department is practically a crime in and of itself.

In isolation, each of the controversies Lithwick mentions was an embarrassing scandal. Taken together, it’s almost as if Bush and his team were trying to destroy the department.

Given what we know of Holder, he seems to have exactly the right skills and background to make the Justice Department function again. But before his clean-up work begins, let’s pause to appreciate just what a fiasco the masters of disasters created here.