The fall guy

March 30, 2007

The former Justice Department official who designed the plan for firing eight U.S. attorneys took the rap for its ineptitude.

But Kyle Sampson told Congress yesterday that his boss, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, was far more deeply involved than Mr. Gonzales has admitted, and that top White House aides gave the final sign-off.

Mr. Sampson's voluntary appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee underscored the importance of congressional efforts to get to the bottom of this sorry saga.

At best, the men and women Mr. Bush appointed to serve in the powerful and prestigious posts of top federal prosecutor in their respective districts were evaluated for removal through an arbitrary, haphazard, undocumented process that had all the professional finesse of a fraternity blackball.

At worst, at least some of the firings resulted from attempts to interfere with prosecutorial discretion, such as the case of David C. Iglesias of New Mexico, whose dismissal was preceded by complaints to the White House from GOP lawmakers and party officials that he wasn't moving fast enough on a fraud investigation of Democrats.

Republican senators in general have demonstrated a higher threshold for outrage than the Democrats at the political debasement of the Justice Department overseen by Mr. Sampson, who called the difference between political- and performance-related reasons for cashiering a U.S. attorney "largely artificial."

But Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, was properly distressed at the administration's clear intent to circumvent Senate confirmation in replacing the fired prosecutors. This raw political maneuvering has had a chilling impact on U.S. attorneys across the nation and within the Justice Department, which Mr. Specter described as in a "state of disrepair, perhaps even dysfunctional."

The decision this week of another Gonzales deputy, Monica Goodling, to refuse to appear before the Senate, invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, only adds to the uncertainty.

The White House should move swiftly to make Karl Rove, Harriet E. Miers and any other White House aides involved available for congressional testimony along with Mr. Gonzales as soon as possible. Damage control is now a lost cause; the focus should be on getting out the truth.

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