Justice Lawyers Speak Out Against Gonzales. Risk Retalitation. Resignations Begin.


Published: July 28, 2007
WASHINGTON, July 27 — Daniel J. Metcalfe, a lawyer who began his government career in the Nixon administration and retired from the Justice Department last winter, said morale at the department was worse under Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales than during Watergate.

John S. Koppel, who continues to work at the department as a civil appellate lawyer in Washington, wrote this month that he was “ashamed� of the department and that if Mr. Gonzales told the truth in recent Congressional testimony, “he has been derelict in the performance of his duties and is not up to the job.�

Even though they worry that it may hinder their career prospects, a few current and former Justice Department lawyers have begun to add to the chorus of Mr. Gonzales’s critics who say that the furor over his performance as attorney general, and questions about his truthfulness under oath, could do lasting damage to the department’s work.

It is a view that is widely shared on Capitol Hill, even more so after the grueling questioning of Mr. Gonzales on Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at which his credibility was repeatedly challenged. After the hearing, several Democratic senators called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate whether he committed perjury on Tuesday.

Lawmakers and senior Congressional aides from both parties said Mr. Gonzales had lost almost all ability to influence the administration’s agenda in Congress, denying the president what should be an important voice on issues including terrorism, immigration and civil rights.

“The attorney general’s loss of credibility not only harms him personally, it diminishes the Justice Department and undermines the president’s ability to move some of his most sensitive legal issues through the Hill because the trust factor doesn’t exist with his attorney general,� said Representative Adam H. Putnam of Florida, a Gonzales critic who is chairman of the House Republican Conference.

“It is more than a distraction,� Mr. Putnam said, “and the consequences to the president are far greater than any one person.�

Mr. Gonzales is expected to be sidelined from any significant part in the debate on Capitol Hill this summer over legislation eagerly sought by the administration to update terrorist surveillance laws.

The Justice Department has insisted that its work goes on largely undisturbed. At this week’s Senate hearing, Mr. Gonzales said, “Morale in the department, I think, is good if you look at the output.� He said that “the wonderful career people at the department continue doing their job day in and day out, and justice is being served in this country.�

While administration officials and close allies acknowledge that some of President Bush’s aides may be eager to see Mr. Gonzales go, they say the attorney general continues to have the confidence of Mr. Bush, who has repeatedly shown that he resists making personnel decisions under political pressure.

In separate interviews, White House officials used virtually the same words in describing why Mr. Gonzales might remain at the department indefinitely: “Only one person matters� — the president.

Still, Mr. Gonzales’s policy opponents within the White House have used his perceived weakness as an opening to push proposals that he might otherwise have gone to the president to block. One person close to the administration recently attributed a new push to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in part to the bureaucratic weakness of Mr. Gonzales, who has opposed the move.

Notwithstanding Mr. Gonzales’s assurances, other department officials said that, by several measurements, the work of the department has been severely disrupted by his troubles, especially in recent months. There are vacancies through the senior ranks.

The department’s No. 2 official, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, has resigned and is expected to leave next week; his departure is widely assumed to have resulted from the outcry over his role in the dismissal of nine United States attorneys last year. A permanent successor has not been named.

William W. Mercer, the nominee for the department’s third-highest job, associate attorney general, withdrew his name from consideration for the job last month after determining that his nomination would almost certainly be rejected by the Senate, and also because of his role in the firing of the prosecutors. There is no indication that the administration is close to finding another candidate.

Among the 93 United States attorneys, who serve as the chief federal prosecutors for their regions, there are 24 vacancies. The White House has announced nominations for only six of those offices, which means that several of the jobs may remain unfilled for the rest of the Bush administration.

Mr. Metcalfe, the retired lawyer who was the founding director of the department’s Office of Information and Privacy, said in an interview that the questions over Mr. Gonzales’s competence and credibility had shattered morale at the department, especially after the attorney general’s testimony this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“When you have an attorney general with his personal integrity and credibility so repeatedly reduced to shreds, not to mention in so public a forum, that’s just antithetical to the very nature of the Justice Department and its role in upholding the rule of law,� Mr. Metcalfe said. “This is the Department of Justice and the attorney general, where absolute integrity is Job 1.�

In an opinion article that was first published this month in The Denver Post and has since been circulated in the department, Mr. Koppel, the civil appellate lawyer, said that under the Bush administration the department had been “thoroughly politicized in a manner that is inappropriate, unethical and indeed unlawful.�

Mr. Koppel, who has been with the department since 1981, wrote that his decision to issue such a public criticism of Mr. Gonzales and the department “subjects me to a substantial risk of unlawful reprisal from extremely ruthless people who have repeatedly taken such action in the past.�

“But I am confident,� Mr. Koppel continued, “that I am speaking on behalf of countless thousands of honorable public servants, at Justice and elsewhere.�


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