(Cartoon: Sack / Star Tribune)
At any other time, what happened in the U.S. Justice Department last week would have been big news. At any other time, when internal reports by Justice Department call for more investigation into a case of unethical, if not criminal, conduct on the part of lawmakers and the White House, the administration would have a lot of explaining to do.
But the Bush administration got lucky. As its Treasury and Federal Reserve chiefs warned that the sky was falling and the economic crash and continuing tumult on Wall Street made them seem prophetic, the Justice Department released a nearly 400-page scalding indictment of the administration over the controversial firings of several U.S. attorneys in 2006.
It was an overlooked bombshell in breaking news cycles preoccupied with financial crisis, rescue plans, presidential politics, and a vice-presidential debate.
But what the Justice Department's exhaustive investigation and blistering report concluded about the enormous damage done to the department through improper politicization is far more troubling than even Sarah Palin in disjointed attack mode.
Investigators from both the department's Office of Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility found that political pressure did indeed drive the dismissal action against at least three of the nine federal prosecutors abruptly fired. At the time, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales insisted the individuals were all dismissed for inadequate performance, or failure to implement the President's law enforcement agenda.
But it appears the longtime pal and adviser to President Bush was lying through his teeth. Turns out the real reason some of the top federal lawyers were removed from the job, according to the Justice Department report, was that either the U.S. attorneys had the audacity to prosecute Republicans or because they failed to aggressively prosecute Democrats.
Either way, their behavior ticked off well-connected GOP politicians who had come to expect a politically loyal Justice Department. A couple of calls from powerful New Mexico Republican officeholders helped push former U.S. attorney David Iglesias out of a job. Evidently, the top New Mexico prosecutor was remiss in his duty to produce criminal charges against Democrats in the run-up to the 2006 election.
Another U.S. attorney in Missouri lost his post over a petty complaint from Republican Sen. Christopher Bond, and still another was bumped to make room for a protÃ©gÃ© of White House political adviser Karl Rove. There was a pervading culture of partisanship/loyalty-above-all-else in the department, recalled one of the fired attorneys.
"Not only were my colleagues and I not insulated from politics - as we should have been in our jobs as prosecutors - but we were fired for the most partisan reasons," Mr. Iglesias said.
But it mattered not to the Machiavellian Bush Administration that justice was compromised with appalling political interference. It operates under the premise that the ends always justify the means.
Look at the pattern.
The administration used fear about nonexistent WMDs as a means to justify the ends of invading Iraq. It outed a CIA operative to punish critics, eliminated civil rights under the misnamed Patriot Act to expand executive authority, crafted energy policy with energy companies to benefit the energy industry, and allowed the subprime mortgage mess to perpetuate to generate obscene wealth for a few.
And now there are official findings of fact about the politically charged dismissals of U.S. attorneys conducted to satisfy a White House agenda. Scandal-weary Americans may be inclined to dismiss yet another administration disgrace, but what happened at the Justice Department is too big a deal to ignore.
We're supposed to be a country that requires "equal justice under the law," not tainted justice under political consideration. But that's what we had under shameless administration zealots like Mr. Rove and Mr. Gonzalez.
The former administration officials allowed the most invaluable assets of the Justice Department - its integrity and independence - to be jeopardized for political ends. They permitted wholesale politicization of the department, as one commentary put it, "by subjecting new hires and sitting U.S. attorneys to rigid ideological litmus tests."
Even though new Attorney General Michael Mukasey has appointed a federal prosecutor to investigate whether criminal laws were violated all the way to the Oval Office, the administration may luck out again. As time runs out on its lamentable tenure, the injustice it perpetrated on a once-venerated institution may go unpunished.
But before the next administration takes over, Americans need firm assurance that the rule of law will be applied fairly by the Justice Department. Never again can there be partisan allegiance required of incoming professionals, or political criteria that outweigh the legal and ethical.
The impartial administration of justice in this nation, its very credibility, was nearly destroyed by the tyrannical ambitions of a few.
How's that for big news almost buried?