Friday, March 09, 2007

The New Saturday Night Massacre

The Gonzalez Eight, as they are called, are the eight prosecutors who were informed they were being fired on December 7, 2006 -- another day that will live in infamy -- and will once again harken back to an earlier scandal: the Saturday Night Massacre.

The firing of the prosecutors have enough parallels to Watergate (many in the Bush Administration served under Nixon) that it warrants the same type of Congressional investigation now as it did then.

Paul Krugman has it right when he says that the last election was about subpoena power:

In the last few days we’ve also learned that Republican members of Congress called prosecutors to pressure them on politically charged cases, even though doing so seems unethical and possibly illegal.

The bigger scandal, however, almost surely involves prosecutors still in office. The Gonzales Eight were fired because they wouldn’t go along with the Bush administration’s politicization of justice. But statistical evidence suggests that many other prosecutors decided to protect their jobs or further their careers by doing what the administration wanted them to do: harass Democrats while turning a blind eye to Republican malfeasance.

Donald Shields and John Cragan, two professors of communication, have compiled a database of investigations and/or indictments of candidates and elected officials by U.S. attorneys since the Bush administration came to power. Of the 375 cases they identified, 10 involved independents, 67 involved Republicans, and 298 involved Democrats. The main source of this partisan tilt was a huge disparity in investigations of local politicians, in which Democrats were seven times as likely as Republicans to face Justice Department scrutiny.

How can this have been happening without a national uproar? The authors explain: “We believe that this tremendous disparity is politically motivated and it occurs because the local (non-statewide and non-Congressional) investigations occur under the radar of a diligent national press. Each instance is treated by a local beat reporter as an isolated case that is only of local interest.”

And let’s not forget that Karl Rove’s candidates have a history of benefiting from conveniently timed federal investigations. Last year Molly Ivins reminded her readers of a curious pattern during Mr. Rove’s time in Texas: “In election years, there always seemed to be an F.B.I. investigation of some sitting Democrat either announced or leaked to the press. After the election was over, the allegations often vanished.”

Fortunately, Mr. Rove’s smear-and-fear tactics fell short last November. I say fortunately, because without Democrats in control of Congress, able to hold hearings and issue subpoenas, the prosecutor purge would probably have become yet another suppressed Bush-era scandal — a huge abuse of power that somehow never became front-page news.

Before the midterm election, I wrote that what the election was really about could be summed up in two words: subpoena power. Well, the Democrats now have that power, and the hearings on the prosecutor purge look like the shape of things to come.

In the months ahead, we’ll hear a lot about what’s really been going on these past six years. And I predict that we’ll learn about abuses of power that would have made Richard Nixon green with envy.

One of the prosecutors, Carol Lam, was investigating and prosecuting official corruption of congressman Duke Cunningham and related players. Other prosecutors were apparently fired because they would not cave to official pressure to bring indictments against Democrats in tight congressional elections. Some prosecutors apparently did. From the Krugman editorial:

The subpoenas were issued in connection with allegations of corruption on the part of Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat who seemed to be facing a close race at the time. Those allegations appeared, on their face, to be convoluted and unconvincing, and Mr. Menendez claimed that both the investigation and the leaks were politically motivated.

Mr. Christie’s actions might have been all aboveboard. But given what we’ve learned about the pressure placed on federal prosecutors to pursue dubious investigations of Democrats, Mr. Menendez’s claims of persecution now seem quite plausible.

In fact, it’s becoming clear that the politicization of the Justice Department was a key component of the Bush administration’s attempt to create a permanent Republican lock on power. Bear in mind that if Mr. Menendez had lost, the G.O.P. would still control the Senate.

About two decades ago, while I was still an undergrad, I remember reading a book that alleged that Washington politics had become all about using "scandal" as a campaign tactic. The theme of the book was that congressional investigations and prosecutions had replaced the normal electioneering process. It appears that the practice may have been honed to perfection.

We need to get back to a day when we can elect our representatives based on the ideas that they espouse rather than using investigation and prosecution as politics by other means. Of course, that assumes we can find moral people who will seek -- and can win -- higher office. In the current tabloid American culture, it seems doubtful that we can find such men and women of good character to fill those roles. If they don't have taint, surely political operatives will create it for campaign purposes.

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