Burnham on justice: Where's the rest of it?

January 28, 1996|By Edwin Guthman | Edwin Guthman,Special to the Sun

"Above the Law: Secret Deals, Political Fixes and Other Misadventures of the U. S. Department of Justice," by David Burnham. Scribner. 444 pages. $27.50 After reeling off a fast list of the U.S. Justice Department's powers and misuse of power, David Burnham tips his hat to the "thousands of principled men and women" who enforce federal laws "idealistically and constructively," but then notifies the reader: "This book examines the darker side (of the Justice Department)."

Boy, does it ever!

Mr. Burnham takes direct aim at various attorneys general and all components of the department and fires scattershots at such "sleeping watchdogs" as the press, Congress and the legal profession.

The Justice Department is a "chaotic, slipshod, almost medieval institution" that has a history of arbitrarily trampling the Bill of Rights, according to Mr. Burnham, a veteran investigative journalist. Sure, he writes, some violations have occurred in pursuit of spies, terrorists, organized crime bosses, but there has been a "persistent pattern of misuse of ... power."

Within that pattern:

Federal agencies, particularly the FBI, are "keeping track of the American people" with an array of sophisticated electronic devices. No doubt they will help solve major crimes, but given the department's "obsessive law-and-order mind-set ... it is far from clear whether - in the balance - these developments will make the nation safer."

The Justice Department's war on drugs is "big, bad and dumb." A massive shift from failed enforcement strategies to reducing the demand for drugs might work, but "whether our current crop of political leaders can learn from history is not clear."

Republican and Democratic attorneys general have vowed to go after corporate criminals but "as a result of unacknowledged class biases, outright political deals, poorly drafted laws and incompetent investigators, the Justice Department itself could be convicted of fraud when it comes to white-collar crime."

And that's just the short list, but there is a problem. In too many instances Mr. Burnham hasn't told the whole story.

One of which I had personal knowledge - President Carter's firing of Republican David Marston as U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia in 1978 - is cited as "one of the best documented cases" of "high-level political fixes" in the Justice Department.

The firing precipitated a political storm that embarrassed Carter nationally when it became known that U.S. Rep. Joshua Eilberg, a Philadelphia Democrat who was being investigated by Marston's office, pressured the president to replace Marston with a Democrat.

Mr. Burnham described that in detail, but failed to report that Marston's replacement, Peter F. Vaira, a Democrat, continued the investigation. Eilberg pleaded guilty to conflict-of-interest charges after admitting that he illegally received payment for helping a Philadelphia hospital win a $14.5 million federal anti-poverty grant. He was fined $10,000 and placed on five years' probation. He was defeated and then disbarred.

Unfortunately, that's Mr. Burnham's pattern. The red flags he raises are real enough. But readers will be left wondering. Thus, it seems fair to paraphrase questions that Mr. Burnham asks about New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis' cozy involvement in how the Kennedy Justice Department argued a critical one-man-one-vote case before the Supreme Court:

How much credence can we give to Mr. Burnham's claims? Is it ever proper for an author to tell only part of a story? Did Mr. Burnham's intense scrutiny of Justice lead him to ignore - almost totally - other important facts that reflected credit on the department? These questions may be unfair ... but the mind-set revealed by Mr. Burnham's one-sided coverage of the subject remains disturbing.

Edwin Guthman is a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Journalism. Before that he was the editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and, before that, national editor at the Los Angeles Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950. He was press secretary for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1964 and 1965. His books include "We Band of Brothers."

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