A Culture of Corruption

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 29, 2008; 11:26 AM

The big fish keep swimming away.

The latest investigation into the overt politicization of the Department of Justice has meticulously documented how a handful of young political appointees blatantly violated federal laws and Justice Department policies by hiring career employees based on the extent of their devotion to Republican dogma.

But the report doesn't address who is responsible for creating the culture of corruption in which these aides thrived.

Who asked them to behave this way? Or, barring an explicit request, how did they come to conclude that this was what their superiors expected of them? Who twisted the Justice Department, designed to operate with a large degree of independence, into a political adjunct of the White House?

And is it really just a coincidence that Monica Goodling, the central culprit of this latest report, held the title of White House liaison?

A June report by the same two Justice Department offices that produced yesterday's findings concluded that over a five year period, aides stocked a prestigious hiring program with young conservatives, intending to reshape the department's ranks. Two more internal reports are in the works, one about political interference with the Civil Rights Division and the other about the role of politics in the administration's controversial firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006.

Whether the eager, young politicos who carried out these policies are held accountable is one question. But who was pulling their strings is another.

It's unlikely that former absentee landlord Alberto Gonzales was a key player here. Not only did some of these practices pre-date him, but his primary task, which he bungled, appears to have been to conceal the fact that he wasn't the one calling the shots.

Indeed, it's hard to reach any conclusion other than that White House political operatives masterminded a plan to defile the Justice Department's mission in the short run and to seed its ranks with people who will be in a position to continue the corruption for a long time to come.

The Coverage

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "For nearly two years, a young political aide sought to cultivate a 'farm system' for Republicans at the Justice Department, hiring scores of prosecutors and immigration judges who espoused conservative priorities and Christian lifestyle choices.

"That aide, Monica M. Goodling, exercised what amounted to veto power over a wide range of critical jobs, asking candidates for their views on abortion and same-sex marriage and maneuvering around senior officials who outranked her, including the department's second-in-command.

"An extensive report by the department's Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility concluded yesterday that Goodling and others had broken civil service laws, run afoul of department policy and engaged in 'misconduct,' a finding that could expose them to further scrutiny and sanctions. . . .

"The 140-page report appeared to confirm the suspicions of congressional Democrats and raised fresh questions about the reputation of the Justice Department, which has been roiled since the resignations of more than a dozen top officials last year, including Goodling, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Gonzales chief of staff D. Kyle Sampson. The report also found that Sampson had engaged in misconduct by systematically involving politics in the hiring of immigration judges. . . .

"Current and former department lawyers said they were appalled by the deep reach of the political hiring, which affected hundreds of rejected job seekers and as many as 40 immigration judges who were recruited under the political criteria. Those judges may remain on the bench because their career civil service jobs carry significant employment protections."

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "A longtime prosecutor who drew rave reviews from his supervisors was passed over for an important counterterrorism slot because his wife was active in Democratic politics, and a much-less-experienced lawyer with Republican leanings got the job, the report said.

"Another prosecutor was rejected for a job in part because she was thought to be a lesbian. And a Republican lawyer received high marks at his job interview because he was found to be sufficiently conservative on the core issues of 'god, guns + gays.'"

The report "found that White House officials were actively involved in some hiring decisions.

"According to the report, officials at the White House first developed a method of searching the Internet to glean the political leanings of a candidate and introduced it at a White House seminar called The Thorough Process of Investigation. Justice Department officials then began using the technique to search for key phrases or words in an applicant's background, like 'abortion,' 'homosexual,' 'Florida recount,' or 'guns.' . . .

"The problem appears to have predated Ms. Goodling's rise at the Justice Department. In one episode cited in 2004, when John Ashcroft was attorney general, Ms. Goodling's predecessor as White House liaison, Susan Richmond, blocked the deputy attorney general's office from extending the stint of one lawyer because she felt that the job should be filled by a political appointee loyal to Mr. Bush, the report said.

"Stuart Levey, an aide in the deputy attorney general's office, summed up his frustration in an e-mail message recounting his inability to keep the lawyer in his office. 'I also probed whether there is something negative about him that I did not know,' Mr. Levey wrote. 'Turns out there is: he is a registered Democrat,' he wrote, and Jan Williams, an official in the White House, 'thinks everyone in the leadership offices should have some demonstrated loyalty to the President. She all but said that he should pack his bags and get out of Dodge by sunset.'"

Marisa Taylor writes for McClatchy Newspapers that administration critics continue to contend that high-level administration officials were to blame. "'The policies and attitudes of this administration encouraged politicization of the department and permitted these excesses,' charged Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. 'It is now clear that these politically rooted actions were widespread, and could not have been done without at least the tacit approval of senior department officials.'"

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The report, prepared by the department's Office of Professional Responsibility and Office of the Inspector General, does not delve deep enough. . . .

"Despite [its] incriminating findings, the report is disappointing for what it omits. Did these hiring practices have any impact on the handling of political cases -- like those involving phony charges of election fraud -- or its prosecution of individuals? What role did White House officials, including Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, play in the politicization?

"And what about former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose memory went so conveniently fuzzy under questioning by Congress? It strains credulity to believe that a functionary like Ms. Goodling could act so brazenly unless she knew that she was doing what her bosses wanted. . . .

"[Attorney General Michael] Mukasey's response to the report focused on making sure that the improper and illegal activity 'does not occur again.' He does not seem to understand that, as the nation's top law enforcement officer, he has a duty to investigate crimes committed in his own department and to punish the offenders. The report's authors could not interview Ms. Goodling because she no longer works at the Justice Department. Mr. Mukasey, who has subpoena power, presumably could get her to talk -- as well as Mr. Rove, Ms. Miers and all of the others who need to testify under oath before this matter can be put to rest."

Jamie Gorelick, a Clinton Justice department official, writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "For decades, Republican and Democratic attorneys general had protected from political influence the hiring of career prosecutors and administrative judges. There was an unbroken rule, embodied in law, regulation and department policy, that no political questions would be asked of those who wanted to serve in career -- as opposed to political -- positions in the department. We demanded of our Justice Department, in its core prosecutorial and adjudicative functions, that it be separate from politics. Until the Bush administration. . . .

"During the Bush administration, we have seen U.S. attorneys fired under circumstances that have led many to conclude they paid the price because they wouldn't prosecute Democrats; honors program applicants screened for their political leanings; and now the process of hiring line prosecutors and immigration judges similarly politicized. How do we reassure the American people that justice is being meted out fairly? Trust and respect lost are hard to win back. . . .

"The department needs to hold individuals responsible for their actions. It needs to offer opportunities to those who were improperly denied them. And it needs to make sure that this never happens again. Restoring the promise of unbiased justice will take the efforts of both this attorney general and his successors."

Andrew Cohen blogs for CBS News: "This is the sort of conduct that vitiates the rule of law, corrodes it from within, because Goodling's misconduct empowered others (the partisan immigration judges she selected) to, in turn, make their own politicized judgments in an area of the law that had been up to that point refreshingly clear of such politics. If it were just Goodling and Sampson alone it would be bad enough. But their conduct spawned a whole new generation of hacks and cronies. And that's why the Department suffered its worst scandal since Watergate. . . .

"[I]f ever there was a time for the Justice Department to use litigation to educate the American people about the sins of illegality in government this is it. If nothing else, litigation now would ensure that future bureaucrats are much more mindful of the professional and non-partisan obligations they have. I mean, Goodling and Sampson and Company in just a few short years ruined the high tradition of nonpartisan professionalism within the career-service cadre at Justice. If that doesn't merit an in-court follow up I don't know what does."

EPA Politicization Watch

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "A senior official in the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement office has warned managers they should direct inquiries from reporters, congressional investigators and the agency's inspector general to designated officials rather than answering the questions themselves, according to an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post. . . .

"Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, said the missive highlighted the quandary some EPA officials face when they want to speak out against political interference with their work. In April, the group released a survey of agency officials in which 889 of nearly 1,600 staff scientists surveyed said they had encountered political interference in their jobs at least once in the past five years."

Deficit Watch

Robert Pear and David M. Herszenhorn write in the New York Times: "The White House predicted Monday that President Bush would leave a record $482 billion deficit to his successor, a sobering turnabout in the nation's fiscal condition from 2001, when Mr. Bush took office after three consecutive years of budget surpluses.

"The worst may be yet to come. The deficit announced by Jim Nussle, the White House budget director, does not reflect the full cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the potential $50 billion cost of another economic stimulus package, or the possibility of steeper losses in tax revenues if individual income or corporate profits decline.

"The new deficit numbers also do not account for any drains on the national treasury that might result from further declines in the housing market. . . .

"The deficit projected for 2009 would be the largest in absolute terms, easily surpassing the record of $413 billion in 2004. The White House and many economists prefer to measure the deficit as a share of the economy. The projected 2009 deficit would be 3.3 percent of the economy. That is the largest share since 2004, but well below the percentages recorded in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1983, the deficit was 6 percent of the overall economy. . . .

"When Mr. Bush took office, he predicted that federal debt held by the public -- the amount borrowed by the government to pay for past deficits -- would shrink to just 8 percent of the gross domestic product in 2009. He now estimates that it will amount to 40 percent.

"Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said, 'President Bush will be remembered as the most fiscally irresponsible president in our nation's history.'"

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "White House budget director Jim Nussle said unexpectedly slow economic growth, sharp declines in housing prices and an unanticipated increase in inflation will help drive next year's tide of red ink close to half a trillion dollars, up sharply from February's $407 billion estimate.

"'We are not happy about the deficit,' Nussle conceded."

Weisman writes that "[i]f anything, the White House's new deficit forecasts may be low. . . .

"Next year's record figure includes only $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which could cost three times that much, and it is based on economic assumptions that could prove unrealistic. The White House is assuming economic growth next year of 2.2 percent, down sharply from the 3 percent estimate of February but still brighter than the 1.7 percent growth estimate of many private-sector economists. The White House is also assuming rosier numbers for inflation and unemployment rates.

"'That's not the real number,' former Bush Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill said of the $482 billion deficit forecast. 'It's upward of $500 billion and counting. It's a mind-boggling number.'"

Johanna Neuman blogs for the Los Angeles Times that "the line of the day goes to House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Democrat who once worked in the Clinton White House. Alluding to the surplus that Bush inherited on taking office in 2001, he said: 'The president who repeatedly pledged to cut the deficit in half has instead brought it to a record high. President Bush squandered a $236 billion surplus, ran up record deficits and added nearly $4 trillion to the national debt. Mr. President, we will be forever in your debt.'"

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "The Bush administration tried to spin Monday's grim budget news as fallout from the economic stimulus package approved by a bipartisan congressional majority in February. The $600-per-taxpayer rebate certainly didn't help, costing the Treasury $168 billion, but it's by no means the source of the deficit problem. That goes back several years -- to when Bush and a compliant Congress launched an invasion of Iraq costing hundreds of billions of dollars and, rather than raise taxes to pay for it, continued to cut them."

National Security Watch

Barry Schweid writes for the Associated Press: "In a report aimed at the next president, security specialists are proposing a vast overhaul of the U.S. security system, declaring it problem-plagued.

"The report . . . said frequent feuding and jurisdictional disputes among Cabinet secretaries and other agency heads force the president to spend too much time settling internal fights.

"Time and money are wasted on duplicative and inefficient actions, slowing down government responses to crises, the report said.

"The president and his top advisers focus on day-to-day crisis management rather than long-term planning, 'allowing problems to escape presidential attention until they worsen and reach the crisis level,' said the report, to be issued later in the week."

Torture Watch

I wrote in Friday's column about the latest release of torture memos.

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "I still find it hard to believe that George W. Bush, to his eternal shame and our nation's great discredit, made torture a matter of hair-splitting, legalistic debate at the highest levels of the U.S. government. But that's precisely what he did. . . .

"It is not difficult to avoid violating federal laws and international agreements that prohibit torture. Just don't torture people, period. The idea that there exists some acceptable middle ground -- a kind of 'torture lite' -- is a hideous affront to this nation's honor and values. This, perhaps above all, is how George Bush should be remembered: as the president who embraced torture.

"I wouldn't be surprised if, as he left office, Bush issued some sort of pardon clearing those who authorized or carried out 'enhanced techniques' of interrogations from any jeopardy under U.S. law. International law is something else entirely, however, and I imagine that some of those involved in this sordid interlude might want to be careful in choosing their vacation spots. I'd avoid The Hague, for example. . . .

"A clear and urgent duty of the next president will be to investigate the Bush administration's torture policy and give Americans a full accounting of what was done in our name. It's astounding that we need some kind of truth commission in the United States of America, but we do. Only when we learn the full story of what happened will we be able to confidently promise, to ourselves and to a world that looks to this country for moral leadership: Never again."

Dahlia Lithwick writes for Newsweek: "Reading both Jane Mayer's stunning 'The Dark Side,' and Philippe Sands's 'Torture Team,' it quickly becomes plain that the prime mover of American interrogation doctrine is none other than the star of Fox television's '24,' Jack Bauer.

"This fictional counterterrorism agent -- a man never at a loss for something to do with an electrode -- has his fingerprints all over U.S. interrogation policy. As Sands and Mayer tell it, the lawyers designing interrogation techniques cited Bauer more frequently than the Constitution."

And what's so wrong with emulating Jack Bauer? "For one thing, Jack Bauer operates outside the law, and he knows it. Nobody in the fictional world of '24' changes the rules to permit him to torture. For the most part, he does so fully aware that he is breaking the law. Bush administration officials turned that formula on its head. In an almost Nixonian twist, the new interrogation doctrine became: 'If Jack Bauer does it, it can't be illegal.'

"Bauer is also willing to accept the consequences of his decisions to break the law. In fact, that is the real source of his heroism -- to the extent one finds torture heroic. He makes a moral choice at odds with the prevailing system, and accepts the consequences of the system's judgment. The 'heroism' of the Bush administration's torture apologists is slightly less inspiring. None of them is willing to stand up and admit, as Bauer does, that yes, they did 'whatever it takes.' They instead point fingers and cry 'witch hunt.'"

Pakistan Watch

Foster Klug writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush took care to say it twice after his meeting with Pakistan's new prime minister: The United States respects Pakistan's sovereignty.

"For many in Pakistan, the assurances may ring hollow.

"Later Monday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was asked in a CNN interview whether a missile strike on Monday against a religious school just inside Pakistan's border with Afghanistan was a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. Gilani answered: 'Certainly, yes. If it is proved like this, it is certainly yes.'

"Neither the White House nor the Pentagon would talk about possible American involvement in the strike, which occurred just hours before Bush and Gilani met. But it followed a series of attacks in recent months against militant leaders in Pakistan's tribal belt that are widely believed to have been conducted by the U.S. military. Intelligence officials said they were investigating reports that a senior al-Qaida figure, Abu Khabab al-Masri, was among six people killed."

Death Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday approved the execution of an Army private convicted of a string of vicious murders and rapes in North Carolina, marking the first time in half a century that a president has affirmed a military death sentence.

"Bush agreed to a request from the secretary of the Army to execute Ronald A. Gray, who has been on death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., since 1988."

Cheney Watch

James Gordon Meek writes in the New York Daily News: "Vice President Cheney's invitation to address wounded combat veterans next month has been yanked because the group felt his security demands were Draconian and unreasonable.

"The veep had planned to speak to the Disabled American Veterans at 8:30 a.m. at its August convention in Las Vegas.

"His staff insisted the sick vets be sequestered for two hours before Cheney's arrival and couldn't leave until he'd finished talking, officials confirmed.

"'Word got back to us . . . that this would be a prerequisite,' said the veterans executive director, David Gorman, who noted the meeting hall doesn't have any rest rooms. 'We told them it just wasn't acceptable.'

"When Cheney spoke to the group in 2004, his handlers imposed the same stringent security lockdown, upsetting members, officials said.

"Many of the vets are elderly and left pieces of themselves on foreign battlefields since World War II, and others were crippled by recent service in Iraq and Afghanistan. For health reasons, many can't be stuck in a room for hours."

Johanna Neumann blogs for the Los Angeles Times that Cheney press secretary Megan Mitchell tried to dispute the Daily News story. Mitchell wrote in an e-mail: "My understanding is a staff member recommended that audience participants arrive two hours prior to the start of the event to ensure that everyone had ample time to make it through security. We did not request that the event begin at 8:30 in the morning. That was the time proposed by DAV in their letter dated June 5, 2008."

Meek responds in his blog: "Wow, sounds like a whopping confirmation to us."

Who Is Batman?

First came Spencer Ackerman, writing in the Washington Independent that "the concepts of security and danger presented in Christopher Nolan's new Batman epic, 'The Dark Knight,' align so perfectly with those of the Office of the Vice President that David Addington, Cheney's chief of staff and former legal counsel, might be an uncredited script doctor."

Atlantic blogger Matthew Yglesias chimed in: "I think Cheney would look at the movie and say 'see -- this is what we're doing.' I look at the movie and say 'see -- if you were fighting a comic book bad guy and you were a comic book hero then your policies would make sense.'"

Then Andrew Klavan wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "There seems to me no question that the Batman film 'The Dark Knight,' currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war."

A thumping response to Klavan came from White House Watch reader Patrick 82, who wrote in comments to Friday's column (WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD): "If Bush is anyone, he is [Harvey] Dent. The fallen white knight, driven mad by the injustices visited upon him. Dent is the true vigilante, disenchanted with justice and out for revenge. Similarly, Bush, in invading Iraq, put his own personal vendetta against the man who allegedly plotted to kill his father above pursuing and bringing to justice those actually responsible for 9/11 in Afghanistan."

And Secret Pants Sketch Comedy presents: Bush or Batman? It's harder than you might think.

W the Movie

The first trailer is for Oliver Stone's Bush movie. The voiceover from Bush's father begins: "If I remember correctly, you didn't like the sporting goods job. Working in the investment firm wasn't for you either. Or the oil rig job. You didn't exactly finish up with flying colors in the Air National Guard, junior. . . . What are you cut out for?"

Cartoon Watch

Rex Babin on the splurge; Jim Borgman on visionaries; John Sherffius on the Bush legacy.

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