On Tuesday, speaking before the American Bar Association, Attorney General Michael Mukasey attempted to sweep the legacy of Alberto Gonzales, Kyle Sampson, and Monica Goodling under the rug. To suggest that the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) tattered claim to legitimacy and competency can be mended on his say so — with memos and speeches — is a stunning show of self-congratulatory hubris.
In his mind, the problem can be reduced to the following:
The active wrong-doing…was not systemic in that only a few people were directly implicated in it. But the failure was systemic in that the system — the institution — failed to check the behavior of those who did wrong.
He believes the solution is to reform the institution by sheer force of charisma. He believes updated hiring policies, supervisory practices, and the continuing education of DOJ employees will solve the problems. And perhaps they will — while he is the attorney general. But what happens when he is gone – when his successor looks more like his predecessor? How do his reforms endure if someone in turn tries to sweep his legacy under the rug? They won’t, and that’s the problem with internal reform — in the end reform is just a wink and a nod or a cross of the fingers that it won’t happen again.
In fact, the problem isn’t that DOJ didn’t have rules on the books or laws passed by Congress to enforce. No, they had them; the problem was that they were all blithely disregarded (PDF) — by the attorney general and his staff. It is in this vacuum of oversight and leadership that the lawlessness of the Gonzales Troika bloomed. The department is broken, and the attorney general cannot fix it. He must recognize the stark reality, and work with Congress to bring the wrongdoing of his predecessor to light, effectively oversee the department in the future, and create real criminal and civil repercussions for those who violate Department of Justice regulations and civil service laws.
Only Congress can — with oversight and legislation — fix the problems with DOJ. If Mukasey is truly a reformer bent on fixing his department then he must cooperate with Congress and create a pro-active climate for change, accountability, and taking responsibility. His speech suggests something else, that he is more interested in patting himself on the back and sweeping Goodling, Sampson, and Gonzales under the rug.