Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Where there's smoke, is there fire?

Let's take step back from the Gonzales case for a moment and establish some context for the next few days.

Is there a real scandal here? If you consider inept responses to questions a scandal, then yes; the Bush administration often makes the Keystone Kops look like Delta Force commandos. But if you're talking actual wrongdoing then there's a lot of smoke, but no actual fire as of yet.

Admittedly, the smoke is pretty thick. Eight prosecutors were fired midterm, an unusual circumstance in and of itself. Justice said all were for performance reasons. Then they acknowledged that at least one was pushed out simply to make room for a friend of Rove's. Then we discovered that most of them had good performance reviews prior to being fired.

Justice claimed the White House wasn't involved; then we found out it not only was involved, but apparently the whole idea originated with Harriet Miers. Then the White House backed off on that, too. And then we found out Rove was checking in on it.

The firings came amid expressed concerns about political loyalty, and timed remarkably well with either pending investigations of Republicans or a failure to bring charges against Democrats before the November election.

The Justice Department released 3,000 e-mails to bolster its case -- with a notable 18-day gap right in the middle.

All of which suggests at least the possibility of excessive administration interference with the operations of the U.S. attorneys, who though appointed by the president are thereafter supposed to serve the law, not conduct partisan vendettas.

So while we don't know if there is a fire under the smoke, that much smoke provides more than enough basis for investigation.

Does Congress have enough evidence to start subpoenaing senior administration members? Whatever happened to probable cause and "innocent until proven guilty"?

It's true that Congress can't just drag people in for questioning for no reason. Fishing expeditions aren't allowed; they need to be pursuing a legitimate government purpose and a have a specific, defensible reason for subpoenaing a given individual.

That said, I think probable cause is pretty much covered by everything I wrote above. And "innocent until proven guilty" only applies to conviction and punishment, not the investigative or trial phase.

Isn't this a criminal investigation?No; Congress doesn't have that power. This is Congress exercising its oversight powers. As the elected representatives of the people, Congress has broad powers to oversee the functioning of the other two branches. Executive agencies are created and funded by Congress, which retains legal authority over them. The president operates them for Congress. He has some of his own inviolable constitutional powers, but mostly his job is to carry out the laws Congress passes, in the way Congress tells him to.

Similarly, Congress has complete control over the size and function of the Judiciary, except for the Supreme Court -- and Congress has some control over that, too, since it sets the Court's budget, determines the number of Justices and must confirm Court nominees.

So Congress has all sorts of rights to investigate how well the executive branch is carrying out Congress' wishes. This isn't the police looking into the affairs of a private citizen; it's the board of directors looking into the behavior of the company's CEO.

I hear Clinton fired some prosecutors mid-term. If you want to call it that. Apparently three Clinton prosecutors left before their terms were up. Larry Colleton resigned after he was videotaped grapping a reporter by the throat; Kendall Coffey resigned after being accused of biting a topless dancer; and Michael Yamaguchi simply couldn't get along with local judges or the Justice Department. Clinton replaced him with a Republican, Robert Mueller -- Bush the Elder's chief of the criminal justice division and the current FBI director.

That's it. Otherwise Clinton left the prosecutors alone.

So what we have here is an oversight inquiry into possible improper conduct, fueled by partisan distrust, the unusual nature of the firings and the awe-inspiringly bad performance of the White House in response to initial questions about it.

Grab some popcorn, crack a beer, and pull up a chair to watch the fireworks.

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