The recent revelations surrounding the firing of eight United States attorneys certainly raise a lot of questions. But there's one question that sticks out, one that dwarfs all the others. That question is, "Just how dumb does the Bush administration think we are?"
Here's what happened: Eight U.S. attorneys were recently asked to resign, one last June, then seven more in December.
Now, it's not unusual for an incoming president to replace the U.S. attorneys who'd served under his predecessor. Clinton did it, and so did the Bushes, junior and senior. USAs are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate (at least until recently, about which more in a minute), and serve four-year terms.
What was unusual was for the Justice Department to replace eight USAs during the term of the president who'd appointed them. In fact, according to a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, "Out of the 486 U.S. attorneys confirmed in a president's initial term since 1981 no more than three had been forced out under circumstances similar to the current situation."
(One was forced out for grabbing a TV reporter by the throat on camera; another was sacked for biting a topless dancer on the arm.)
What was even more unprecedented was the way in which the USAs were replaced. Under a previously little-regarded provision in the Patriot Act, the attorney general can now nominate an "interim" U.S. attorney without Senate approval. "Interim" in this case means, basically, "permanent," since there's no time limit on the appointment.
So people began to wonder what was behind the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys, none of whom, as far as we know, had attacked a reporter or bitten a stripper.
"Poor performance," the Justice Department claimed. But it turns out that all but one had had positive performance evaluations prior to being canned. The questions mounted. Were the firings politically motivated? Was the administration politicizing law enforcement?
Nonsense, replied Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He would never, he swore to Congress, make such decisions based on politics. The White House wasn't involved, he swore.
Supposedly it was pure happenstance that one of the replaced USAs was Carol Lam, whose office had made flamboyantly corrupt Republican Congressman Randall "Duke" Cunningham cry as he was packed off to prison. It was mere coincidence that several others were overseeing corruption investigations that targeted prominent Republicans or big donors.
The fact that Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and Republican Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico had called their state's U.S. attorney, inquired as to the contents of sealed indictments that may have involved prominent Democrats, and demanded to know if they'd be filed in time for the November elections, weren't meant as political pressure at all. Perish the thought. And it was just a fluke that one USA was replaced by a former aide to Bush henchman Karl Rove.
I ask again: How dumb do these people think we are?
As it turns out, pretty doggone dumb. The congressional investigation turned up voluminous e-mails showing not only that the White House was involved, but also that they had been plotting the firings for almost two years.
One e-mail to White House counsel detailed how "strong performers" were ones who had "exhibited loyalty" to the administration (as opposed to, say, upholding the law).
Another e-mail, from Harriet Miers, detailed how various White House offices, including the political director, had "signed off on the plan."
Faced with evidence that directly contradicted his earlier pronouncements, Gonzales held a press conference this past Tuesday in which he admitted that the firings had been "mishandled," that "inaccurate" information was provided to Congress, and that he "accepted full responsibility." Then, to show how serious he was about taking responsibility, he "accepted the resignation" of his chief of staff.
Now, as I've said before, I'm just a simple country lawyer, but "It's all my responsibility, so I'm kicking someone else to the curb" is a definition of "accepting full responsibility" with which I am not familiar.
My favorite Gonzales quote: "In an organization of 110,000 people, I am not aware of every bit of information that passes through the halls of justice, nor am I aware of all decisions."
But this wasn't a decision over what kind of hand soap to use in the men's room. These were decisions over who the top federal law enforcement official was in particular districts. This was testimony to the U.S. Congress.
Gonzales' department is tasked with defending us from not only crime, but also terrorism. If Gonzales was truly unaware of what was going on, then he, in essence, was saying, "I have no control over and no knowledge of major decisions being made in my department." This is supposed to reassure the American people?
Just how dumb do they think we are? The answer is, very dumb indeed.