By DALE McFEATTERS
Congress clearly didn’t take much notice of an obscure provision the Bush administration slipped into the USA Patriot Act last year. But now it seems clear that the measure is being used to conduct a political purge of U.S. attorneys’ offices.
So far, at least eight are known to have been forced out by the Justice Department, and there may be others. The departures were facilitated by a provision that allows the president to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for an indefinite period without the usual Senate confirmation.
The ouster that raised the biggest stink was that of Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney for San Diego, who nailed Randy “Duke” Cunningham, then a senior House Republican, for accepting over $2 million in bribes. The suspicion was that the White House acted because her investigation was still ongoing and widening.
Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told a Senate committee that the firings were all for “performance-related” reasons, although he conceded that the highly respected U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., was forced out so the job could be given to a protege and former aide to White House political adviser Karl Rove.
The “performance-related” defense began to crumble when the department’s internal evaluations started to leak out and it turned out that most of the ousted attorneys had been capable, competent and well regarded.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are threatening to summon the dismissed prosecutors to testify and to subpoena their performance evaluations. It would be an opportunity for the eight to rebut a gratuitous slap at their reputations.
Better yet would be to repeal the offending provision. A bill to do that has bipartisan support in the Senate, but is being held up in a procedural wrangle. Let’s hope the lawmakers unsnarl the obstacle quickly, because this provision has the potential to give us a badly flawed criminal-justice system.