The attorney general takes cover

Alberto Gonzales wraps himself in the Blacksburg shootings and hides behind "career professionals" at the Justice Department.

Published April 19, 2007 5:03PM (EDT)

There's plenty that's troubling about Alberto Gonzales' testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee today -- despite having had weeks to prepare, the attorney general of the United States still seems to have a hard time explaining what he has done and why -- but there's something particularly noxious about the way he has tried to wrap himself in the protective cloak of others.

It started this morning with his opening statement, when Gonzales made mention of the shootings at Virginia Tech. There was nothing inappropriate in his mentioning the shootings -- several senators did, too -- but Gonzales tried to use them in his defense. Saying he'd felt pride watching members of law enforcement respond to the tragedy, he said: "Moments like these underscore my commitment to the mission of law enforcement and the honor that I have to serve as the nation's chief law enforcement officer."

We weren't sure how what local police did in Virginia could possibly "underscore" Gonzales' own "commitment" to the mission of law enforcement, but it turns out that the attorney general was just getting started. Throughout his testimony so far today, Gonzales has argued that attacks on him are somehow attacks on the "career professionals" who work at the Justice Department.

"When you attack the department for being partisan, you're really attacking the career professionals," Gonzales said at one point today. "That's not right."

Of course, that's not what anyone is doing. The charge is not that "career professionals" at the Justice Department have engaged in partisan politics. The charge -- and it's really more than a charge, now -- is that Gonzales has politicized the department to an unacceptable degree; that just as George W. Bush has ignored the advice of military leaders in plotting his "new" course for Iraq, Gonzales and his cronies have put their political judgments ahead of the decisions that would otherwise be made by the "career professionals" in the Justice Department. And it's not just about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year. In a letter to Rep. John Conyers, a group of Justice Department employees complain that Gonzales' deputies have been "politicizing of the non-political ranks of Justice employees" by refusing to hire young lawyers whose résumés show involvement with "liberal" judges or causes.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee moved toward its lunch break this afternoon, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin made it clear to Gonzales that his attack-me, attack-the-professionals argument wasn't flying.

The transcript of their tense exchange:

Durbin: And I think that we have heard here, about some of the political considerations, comments about "loyal Bushies" by Kyle Sampson, the involvement of Mr. Rove in decisions about the fate of some of these U.S. attorneys, raises a serious question as to whether or not your continued service is going to make it difficult for professional prosecutors in the Department of Justice to do their job effectively.

Gonzales: Senator, if I could respond, I think, again, it's absolutely true that this is not about Alberto Gonzales. It's about what's best for the department and whether or not I can continue to be effective in leading this department. I believe that I can be ... Clearly, there are issues that I have to deal with. And I'm going to work as hard as I can to reestablish trust and confidence with this committee and members of Congress and, of course, with the career professionals at our department. And all the credit, everything that we do, the credit goes to them. And so, when there are attacks against the department, you're attacking the career professionals.

Durbin: Now, Mr. Gonzales, that is like saying if I disagree with the president's policy on the war, I'm attacking the soldiers.

Gonzales: What I'm saying is, you should ...

Durbin: The fact of the matter is ...

Gonzales: You should attack me.

Durbin: Your conduct of this department has made it more difficult for these professionals to do their job effectively.

Gonzales: And I'm going to deal with that.

Durbin: And if you ignore that reality, then you cannot be effective as an attorney general.

Gonzales: Senator, I understand that. And I'm going to work at that. What I'm saying is, is -- be careful about criticizing the department. Criticize me.

Durbin: Mr. Gonzales, this testimony today is from you, about your reputation. It is not about the reputation of the men and women working in these offices.

Gonzales: Thank you, Senator.

By Tim Grieve

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

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