Why the purge matters

"There are some lines we just assume aren't going to be crossed."

Published March 26, 2007 1:41PM (EDT)

In a week in which the autopsy results for Anna Nicole Smith and worries over poisonous pet food are bound to capture more attention that the continuing fallout over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, it will be as hard as ever to persuade the public that the purge matters. Josh Marshall, whose Talking Points Memo has led the way in reporting on the U.S. attorneys purge, makes an admirable effort:

"For all the intensity and hostility awash in our politics, there are some lines we just assume aren't going to be crossed, lines that are so basic that the civil compact itself can't easily survive if they're not respected. One of those is the vote. Whoever's in power and however intense things get, most of us assume that the party in power won't interfere with the vote count. We also assume that the administration won't use the IRS to harass or imprison political opponents. And we assume that criminal prosecutions will be undertaken or not undertaken on the facts.

"... no system is perfect and partisan affiliation may distort the justice system at the margins. But none of what we're seeing here is at the margins. What we seem to see are repeated cases in which US Attorneys were fired for not pursuing bogus prosecutions of persons of the opposite party. Or vice versa...

"We all understand that politics and the law aren't two hermetically sealed domains. And we understand that partisanship may come into play at the margins. But we expect it to be the exception to the rule and a rare one. But here it appears to have become the rule rather than the exception, a systematic effort at the highest levels to hijack the Justice Department and use it to advance the interest of one party over the other by use of selective prosecution."

As for the president's renewed endorsement of Alberto Gonzales after new documents showed that he lied about his role in the firings? Marshall writes: "This isn't a case where Alberto Gonzales has fallen short of the president's standards or bungled some process. This is the standard. The attorney general has done and is doing precisely what is expected of him."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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