Wanted: A better attorney general

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

In a speech dripping with unintentional irony, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales bid Washington, D.C., adieu last Friday.

"Over the past two-and-a-half years, I have seen tyranny, dishonesty, corruption and depravity of types I never thought possible," Gonzales said of his tenure. Pardon those who found that remark self-referential. This is a man, after all, who supported warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens, who deemed torture an appropriate interrogation tactic, who could not recall why several U.S. attorneys were fired in President Bush's second term or what his role in those dismissals was. Not sad to see him go.

Nor to turn our attention to his potential successor, retired federal judge Michael B. Mukasey. As a Reagan appointee, Mukasey served 18 years at the U.S. District Court in New York, six as chief. On Monday, Bush said the Yale law alum "knows what it takes to fight" terrorism and "how to do it in a manner that is consistent with our laws and our Constitution."

Skeptics may note the president made similar claims about the outgoing prosecutor. The senators charged with vetting Mukasey, 66, should make sure he's not Gonzales II. To what degree would he march in lockstep with a White House whose constitutional radar has too often been turned off?

That may not be so easy to determine. Mukasey praised parts of the Patriot Act, but conceded in a 2004 Wall Street Journal op-ed that, after 9-11, "no doubt there were people taken into custody, whether on immigration warrants or material witness warrants, who in retrospect should not have been." In the case of "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla, Mukasey demanded the suspect be allowed to speak to a lawyer, against the Bush administration's wishes. But he also ruled the government may detain U.S. citizens like Padilla indefinitely as enemy combatants; he was later reversed on appeal. The Senate should ask Mukasey to elaborate.

His position on the role of criminal courts in trying terror suspects also is worth exploring. Mukasey has written that the existing system is "strained and mismatched" and that "terrorism prosecutions in this country have unintentionally provided terrorists with a rich source of intelligence." He expressed interest in a proposal to create a separate national security court.

So far, Mukasey — described as tough, calm, fair — has separated himself from Gonzales in one important respect: He's competent, with lengthy and seemingly non-partisan legal chops. Even New York's liberal Sen. Charles Schumer, who'd previously recommended Mukasey for the Supreme Court, says he could be 'a consensus candidate' for confirmation.

If so, this is the type of nominee we wish the president had been picking all along, instead of stocking government with cronies whose chief qualification was fealty to Bush — even when that fealty ran afoul of the nation's long-term interests.

Following the disaster that was Gonzales could work in Mukasey's favor. The Justice Department simply cannot be a political tool of the White House, any White House. Here's hoping Mukasey recognizes that and, if confirmed, fixes that flawed culture in the 16 months remaining in this president's term.