That’s how Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo describes a story that his blog and its offshoot, TPMMuckraker.com, have played a laudable role in uncovering: the resignations of more than a dozen United States Attorneys across the country, and their replacement, under an obscure provision in the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, by “interim” candidates hand-picked by the attorney general without the consent of the Senate or any constraint on the duration of their service.
It’s all very suspicious-sounding. The provision smacks of a power-grab, an attempt to put a leash on federal prosecutors in the name of efficiency. It looks even worse when it turns out one of the “interim” US attorneys appointed by Alberto Gonzales is Tim Griffin, a veteran GOP operative who worked in Karl Rove’s shop at the White House and as director of research (i.e., chief dirt digger) at the Republican National Committee. Not only that, but Griffin was appointed to be the USA in his home state of Arkansas, which can only mean he’s being sent by Rove, armed with subpoena power, to dig up fresh dirt on the Clintons in time for the 2008 presidential campaign cycle.
Of course! It all makes perfect conspiratorial sense!
Except for one thing: in this case some liberals are seeing broad partisan conspiracies where none likely exist.
First of all, not all the US Attorneys who resigned were “forced out”, as is clear from even the citations on tpmmuckraker.com. Secondly, the Justice Department is saying, both to the media and directly to Democratic Senators, that the administration will follow the standard practice of submitting nominees for confirmation to fill the vacant posts, and that the nominees will be approved by home-state senators. In the case of Arkansas, where both U.S. Senators are Democrats, there’s little chance that Griffin will be in his job for long. The same is true in the Southern District of California, where Carol Lam, who sent former GOP Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham to jail, has been forced out. Any nominee will have to meet the approval of Senators Feinstein and Boxer.
So far eleven USA vacancies have occured since the Patriot Act provision took effect. Six nominees have already been put forward. If home-state Senators oppose the Administration’s choice, he or she is a non-starter.
The test will be whether or not the Justice Department holds to its promise. With Democrats in control of Congress, it would seem to have little choice. Otherwise, Pat Leahy and John Conyers will have ample cause to block anything Gonzales or the White House wants from them.
What about the resignations? Liberal bloggers fear the worst — that independent-minded federal prosecutors are being forced out and replaced with administration toadies. Their fears are not ungrounded. Although Griffin is a JAG lawyer, most of his formative career experience is in partisan politics. It is not unfair to argue that he is unqualified to be a top federal prosecutor. But it’s far more likely that Griffin’s appointment was an act of patronage — a reward for meritorious service in the political trenches on the president’s behalf — than it was a sinister effort to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Sometimes political hackery is just that.
It is also true that all of the USA’s who have resigned, whether forced out or not, were appointed by Bush. In other words, if this is a massacre, it’s auto-genocide.
The provision allowing the AG to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for unlimited duration won’t survive for long. Feinstein has already submitted a bill overturning it. The President hasn’t got the political capital to fight many battles, and this one isn’t worth it.