I ended my career at the Justice Department as a political appointee under the Bush administration. Before then, I had been an Assistant US Attorney under administrations of both parties.
In my roles both as career prosecutor and political appointee, I took it for granted, and my colleagues took it for granted, that we were part of the government, not part of a campaign. If I had made partisan points to the press, I would have expected to get the axe, and I would have given the axe to any subordinate who similarly failed to understand the difference between governance and politics. This understanding is crucial throughout the executive branch, but nowhere is it more imperative than in the Justice Department. The idea, much less the reality, that partisanship guides the agency responsible for law enforcement is appalling. It stains a legacy generations worked to build. And its implications for freedom are frightening.
My how times have changed. From the Attorney General on down, the message now is that it's OK to bash the opposing party, and to do so in terms that implicity question the opposition's patriotism.
Fifty years ago, this had a name. The name was "McCarthyism."
Out yesterday was this report, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/03/17/justice-department-accuses-republicans-weak-terrorism/. The title is simply startling: "Justice Department Accuses Republicans of Being Weak on Terrorism."
I can only imagine the furor that would have ensued had John Ashcroft's Justice Department accused the Democrats of being "weak on terrorism." And I would have joined the furor, since an attack by the government's chief law enforcement agency on the opposing political party, as such, is so far outside the traditions of responsible government as to boggle the mind.
It is one thing for individual officers of the Department, up to and including the Attorney General, sharply to disagree with members of the opposing party. This happens all the time, and it happened with Eric Holder's appearance this week before the House Judiciary Committee, in which Holder defended, as being a "strong" response to terrorism, the prospect of civilian trials. But it is something else for officers of the Department to go on deep background to hiss to the press messages like this, which the report recounts towards the end:
As for Holder's comments Tuesday trying to paint Republicans as hindering counterterrorism efforts, a Justice Department spokesman said Holder "very clearly wanted to make a point that the proposals we've seen would harm our national security."
"When you have the last nominee for president of the Republican Party and the Republican leader in the Senate both saying that no terrorist should ever be tried in the federal court system, it's clear that that party has made a political decision to remove a counterterrorism tool that is important to keeping our country safe, and by doing that they would weaken our national security," a Justice Department official told Fox News, asking to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize relations with Republicans in Congress.
I think it was Mark Twain who said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. For the Department of Justice to seek such refuge (and do so quite implausibly -- but more of that later) says a great deal, none of it good. The worst of it, though, was not the breast-beating invocation of patriotism but the explicilty political criticism of the administration's opponents. That would be bad enough coming from the Department of Health and Human Services. Coming from the Department of Justice, it is worse than merely worrisome.