A fresh start

Perhaps not since Watergate, when one former attorney general was headed to jail and another to a perjury conviction, has anyone taken over the Justice Department under more difficult circumstances.

As if to reinforce the impression that he is truly in charge, Michael Mukasey was sworn in as attorney general twice, privately last Friday and ceremonially Wednesday, with President Bush avowing that the former judge “has my complete trust and confidence.”

With all due respect, so did the last attorney general and he resigned under pressure after a scandal-marred year. It’s more important that Mukasey win the trust and confidence of the American people and Congress.

Mukasey takes over a department accused of hiring and firing U.S. attorneys for purely political reasons, launching investigations in order to aid Republican candidates, signing off on bad law and bad policy to please the White House and staffing the department with people who were long on Bush loyalty and short on legal expertise.

With only 14 months left to go in the term of an unpopular president, Mukasey must fill more than a dozen senior vacancies in the department and he must do so with something less than a ringing mandate from the Senate. After contentious hearings, he was confirmed by a vote of 53-40, said to be the closest vote on an attorney general in 50 years. Some senators said they only voted aye out of fear Bush might name somebody worse on an acting basis.

Mukasey knows that because of his refusal to say flatly that waterboarding is torture his tenure will be under constant scrutiny against any opinions condoning interrogation techniques that could be construed as torture. It’s oversight that’s overdue, and despite his ambiguity on waterboarding his heart seemed to be in the right place on the issue.

He told the department’s employees that he would use all his strength “to help you to continue to protect the freedom and the security of the people of this country, and their civil rights and liberties, through the neutral and evenhanded application of the Constitution and the laws enacted under it.”

Fine words, Mr. Attorney General, but be aware that not everybody in the administration shares in them.