Demoralized. Discredited. Dysfunctional.
These words are among those used to sum up the state of the Justice Department under the watch of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who last week announced he will step down Sept. 17.
Much like a wounded patient in an intensive care unit, the department is in need of critical attention to revive its core mission: law enforcement.
Exactly how much influence Gonzales exerted throughout the department is still open to debate, but as his 2½-year tenure comes to a close, this much is clear: Main Justice is in disarray.
Current and ex-career employees, former political appointees, legal scholars, detractors, and supporters all tell the same story: The shortcomings are numerous and the successes few and far between.
With ongoing internal and congressional investigations into the firings of nine U.S. Attorneys, the controversial warrantless surveillance program, the politicization of the Civil Rights Division, and Gonzales' own testimony to Congress, it's hard to find observers willing to step out and put a positive spin on Gonzales' tenure. His detractors aren't so shy.
"There is no reasonable doubt that Alberto R. Gonzales will be remembered as one of the worst attorneys general in history and perhaps the most embarrassed, and embarrassing, Cabinet officers ever," says Daniel Metcalfe, a 30-year veteran of Justice who has become an outspoken critic since retiring in January as head of the department's Office of Information and Privacy.Some current Justice employees are just relieved to hear that Gonzales is stepping aside.
"The departure was a reassurance for a lot of people," says a career attorney in the Civil Division. "I'm looking forward to better times."
Not everyone is so critical of Gonzales' stewardship. His defenders highlight the creation of the National Security Division within the department and his emphasis on child exploitation as key accomplishments by the man who replaced John Ashcroft in February 2005.
"As for his legacy, the ironic thing is, I think he did a pretty good job as attorney general," says Viet Dinh, a former high-ranking official at the Office of Legal Counsel under Ashcroft.
RUBBER STAMP FOR THE WHITE HOUSE
Needless to say, not too many observers share Dinh's sunny assessment. Looking over the department's 40 offices, divisions and components, critics point to the Civil Rights Division and the Office of Legal Counsel as being the most tarnished under Gonzales' leadership. They also point to the Executive Office of Immigration Review as being heavily politicized under both Ashcroft and Gonzales. Records show that dozens of former Republican activists and loyalists without immigration law experience got jobs as judges there in recent years.
Evan Peterson, a Justice spokesman, last week strongly denied that politics had influenced some of the department's divisions or that the offices had become extensions of the White House.
But Douglas Kmiec, former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, says the office that oversaw the application of Gonzales' famed memo on interrogations must reinforce its commitment to independence.
"Much of the difficulty over torture memos and signing statements started in that office," says Kmiec, who teaches at Pepperdine University School of Law. "Somehow it lost its way. It lost its ability to say no. [The office] needs to get its act in order."
Dawn Johnsen, a former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under Attorney General Janet Reno, agrees.
"There are just appalling examples of the Department of Justice and its counsel acting as a rubber stamp for unlawful programs that the White House wanted to pursue," says Johnsen, a law professor at Indiana University.
The office is currently headed by Steven Bradbury, who holds the title of principal deputy assistant attorney general and whom the Senate has refused to confirm as the official head of the office for more than two years. Bradbury has been accused of using the office to facilitate White House legal requests and recently wrote a memo advising former White House officials, including former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, to ignore congressional subpoenas.
Democratic senators have questioned Bradbury's credentials and have asked the White House to appoint someone else to head the office. They also are upset that an inquiry by the Office of Professional Responsibility into Bradbury's role in the warrantless surveillance program was quashed by President George W. Bush, who refused to grant OPR investigators security clearances.
Justice spokesman Peterson said in an e-mail statement that the Office of Legal Counsel "has provided rigorous and objective legal advice" to the White House and the executive branch.
"There is no basis to assert that OLC has been politicized or is a rubber stamp for the White House," Peterson said.
At the Civil Rights Division, meanwhile, some career attorneys say their influence has diminished as new department heads and political appointees sought to reverse decades of key civil rights law enforcement under Gonzales and, earlier, Ashcroft.
"The damage done to one of the federal government's most important law enforcement agencies is deep and will take time to overcome," Joseph Rich, a former chief in the voting section of the Civil Rights Division who retired in 2005, said in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year.
Some career staff complain about being overruled on key re-districting plans -- which were later challenged in court. Other controversial practices, such as diverting the hiring duties from career staff to political appointees, began under Ashcroft, but ex-career officials say Gonzales let them continue unchecked.
All the while, some critics say the division paid scant attention to minority discrimination cases and instead took up several "reverse discrimination" prosecutions involving nonminorities.
Bradley Schlozman, who was a senior political official in the Civil Rights Division from 2003 to 2006, played a lead role in dismantling the division and helped strip career staff of their clout, according to former department officials.
Described as brash and pushy by some he came across, Schlozman, who ran the division on an interim basis for five months, would later admit under oath to Congress that he had bragged about hiring Republican buddies and "good Americans" for the division.
It was Schlozman, too, who was assigned in 2006 to replace fired U.S. Attorney Todd Graves in the Western District of Missouri in Kansas City. Some Democrats have suggested that Graves was asked to resign due to his unwillingness to sue Missouri to challenge suspect voter registrations.
While in Missouri, and ignoring standard Justice Department practices, Schlozman pushed for and got a voter fraud indictment against four Democratic activists only weeks before the 2006 election.
That matter, along with Schlozman's statements to Congress, is still under investigation by the department's inspector general.
Gonzales himself came under heavy attack -- and is now under investigation -- for his own testimony during several trips to Capitol Hill this year.
His explanations of the U.S. Attorney firings -- that he could not recall events -- befuddled his critics and lent credence to claims that he was incompetent or was trying to cover up.
Senate Judiciary subcommittee testimony by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey probably was the most damning.
Comey recounted how Gonzales, while acting as White House counsel in 2004, tried to override him and other Justice attorneys by seeking the signature of the then-ailing Ashcroft to reauthorize the warrantless surveillance program. Ashcroft was recovering from surgery at George Washington University Hospital.
GIVING HIM SOME CREDIT
Despite these issues, Viet Dinh and other conservatives praise certain aspects of Gonzales' tenure. They note that he was instrumental in moving forward on the prosecution of terrorism suspects and the treatment of detainees. As an example, Dinh cites the recent conviction of José Padilla, a U.S. citizen who spent more than two years locked up as an enemy combatant in a Navy brig before being charged criminally. It was Gonzales, while White House counsel, who authored the controversial legal strategies to hold Guantánamo prisoners and others indefinitely and without the right to challenge their status in U.S. courts. Some believe strongly that these tactics helped maintain American security.
Dinh does fault Gonzales on other points -- for example, for failing to "mount an effective defense to manage the political crisis."
At least one division chief who left recently says critics don't give Gonzales enough credit for his good work. He and others point out that Gonzales created Project Safe Childhood, an initiative that seeks to clamp down on online predators and child pornography.
Paul Perez, also a former U.S. Attorney, who served on Gonzales' Attorney General Advisory Committee, adds that if there was politicization of the department, it was not transmitted to the field offices.
"I never saw any blatant attempt to politicize any of the law enforcement initiatives or priorities undertaken during [Gonzales'] time as attorney general," says Perez, who was one of 17 chief prosecutors who served on the advisory committee, a group that helps the attorney general develop enforcement policies.
David Iglesias, one of the nine fired U.S. Attorneys who also once served on the advisory committee, sees it differently. He recalls Republicans, including Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M, trying to get an update on investigations against Democrats ahead of elections. "The damage done is not irreparable," Iglesias notes of the bruised department. But he believes it will take a new administration, bringing new vision, priorities and leadership, to do the job.
RESPECT IN THE MORNING
With Gonzales on his way out and the White House actively looking for a viable replacement, observers say what's needed most is a commitment from the top to integrity and upholding the law, as well as messages that politics will not interfere with the department's work.
"The initial challenge is obviously to convey what everyone is concerned about -- reaffirming that the department is about the neutral application of the law," Kmiec says. "There is a lot of work to be done."
Restoring the department's credibility and its apolitical mandate should be paramount for whoever runs the department next, says Walter Dellinger, former head of the Office of Legal Counsel and acting solicitor general under President Bill Clinton. "You need an attorney general who will make it clear that political operatives will not be able to become directly involved with lower officials in the department," says Dellinger, who is chairman of the appellate practice at O'Melveny & Myers and a law professor at Duke University.
The next attorney general should also be able to stand up to the president and his people, as good lawyers do, Dellinger says. "Like many things in life, they'll respect you more in the morning if you say, 'No.'"
Regardless of who ends up leading the troops, some believe Justice can heal itself, no matter who is at the helm.
"The department has tremendously talented people," says Janet Reno, Clinton's attorney general, "and it'll be in good hands."