Keeping the lines straight

During the dispute over the Bush firing of U.S. attorneys, there has been a lot of bad information (shown below in bold), particularly in the blogosphere. This is an effort to sort some of it out.

The president appoints the U.S. attorneys and can fire them at will.

“These attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president. Under federal law, they serve four-year terms. But they can be terminated without cause at any time.” —Bloomington [Illinois] Pantagraph

While this is true in a civics-book sense, U.S. senators have more of a stake in the process than is generally known. While the president technically appoints all U.S. attorneys, he chooses very few of them. That’s because the senators use their confirmation power to force presidents to surrender the right to choose their own appointees. As a result, senators are often heavily invested in the incumbency of U.S. attorneys, something that has gotten little attention during the current dispute. Nevada’s David Bogden was chosen by U.S. Sen. John Ensign, a Republican, to replace Howard Zlotnick. Zlotnick served for a few months after Bush became president and replaced Clinton appointee Kathryn Landreth. Zlotnick was chosen by Ensign, Landreth by Sen. Harry Reid.

Democrats are persecuting Bush for the same thing Clinton did.

“That’s where myopic Democrats should perhaps remind themselves of a little history. You see, on his watch, former President Bill Clinton (Democrat) fired all 93 U. S. attorneys out of the gate when he first took office in 1992.” —columnist Mike Lafferty, Reno News and Review

Clinton did indeed appoint all new U.S. attorneys when he became president. But he did it at the beginning of his administration in order to have his own team. So did Ronald Reagan in 1981. Bush replaced all Clinton U.S. attorneys, though not in one fell swoop—"We fired all Clinton USAs but staggered it out more and permitted some to stay on a few months,” according to a memo by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez’s chief of staff. It is normal protocol for presidential appointees to submit their resignations when a new president takes office.

In the current case, however, Bush has fired eight selected U.S. attorneys midway through his second term. This is highly unusual behavior, which raises legitimate issues of why those specific officials were targeted, particularly since at least half—including Nevada’s Bogden—and possibly more were known to have politically sensitive cases in front of them.

Bush is being raked over the coals in a way no Democrat would be.

When Jimmy Carter, in his first year in office, fired just one U.S. attorney—David Marston of Pennsylvania—Republicans and journalists nearly burned the White House to the ground. It eventually came out that Carter removed Marston, who was investigating Democratic U.S. representatives Joshua Eilberg and Daniel Flood, at Eilberg’s request. It was a major national controversy for more than a year. Time magazine, at one point, published a story listing four lies Carter told about the case.

News coverage of some firings assigns specific Bush administration reasons to firings.

Interviews and administration e-mail traffic suggest that the reasons for the firings are not yet clear. In the case of Bogden, for instance, the evidence suggests a Bush administration search for a pretext for his firing. The reasons du jour given in Justice Department e-mail traffic and those Bogden says he was given included:

• Providing slots for other attorneys to get experience for future judgeships

• Bodgen’s alleged reluctance to prosecute a weak obscenity case when his workforce was reduced

• Las Vegas district “underserved” in terrorism, violent crime, drugs and organized crime cases

• “Lack of energy and leadership for highly visible district with serious crime issues”

In fact, crime figures for Nevada are down, not up.

Democrats are now reforming the process by changing the law to give U.S. attorneys more independence.

What the Democrats are doing now is undoing what they did six years ago. The process Democrats are now trying to “reform” is the same process they unreformed when they passed the PATRIOT Act in the post-September 11 hysteria on Oct. 25, 2001. Every Democrat but one in the Senate voted for the measure, which removed the independence of U.S. attorneys that Democrats are now trying to restore. If stripping the U.S. attorneys of their independence was a mistake, there is blame enough for both parties.