Bush wreckage report


It is tempting, with a holiday weekend on the horizon, to wind down by merely riffing on the latest fatuous campaign trivia (did Barack Obama really refuse to bump fists with an Ohio schoolkid? nope). But today I prefer to briefly ignore the campaign and instead sift some of the latest Bush administration wreckage.

It's important to do this, every so often, if only because our culture's relentless focus on the future often threatens to trump a full accounting of the past. And, fortunately, we have a few fresh developments, vivid reminders of how the Bush idealogues have undercut the integrity of our institutions. I am speaking, here, of the U.S. Justice Department.

The other day, in the first of what appears to be a series of damaging internal reports, the Justice Department's own inspector general laid bare the behavior of the Bush apparatchiks who used ideological litmus tests to screen out qualified applicants for nonpartisan civil service jobs. This is illegal. Longstanding federal law states quite clearly that applicants for those jobs shall be quizzed only on their competence and professional qualifications, not on their political leanings. Screeners who stress the latter are in breach of the law.

But that's what happened, according to the inspector general's report, which says that the practice became particularly widespread (prepare to be shocked) during the brief reign of Bush's Texas crony, attorney general Alberto Gonzales.

One qualified candidate, a Harvard Law alumnus, made the mistake of once doing some work for Planned Parenthood. Another was rejected after the Justice screeners discovered that the applicant had posted, on his MySpace page, an unflattering cartoon about the Decider. Other qualified applicants were rejected because, in the words of one Justice screener, they had in the past used "buzzwords like 'environmental justice' and 'social justice.'" Others had worked for groups, such as Greenpeace, that the screeners considered unacceptable on ideological grounds.

All told, the Justice inspector general said that the rejection of "many qualified applicants" - perhaps as many as 359 in 2006 alone - constituted "misconduct and also violated the department's policies and civil service law that prohibit discrimination in hiring based on political or ideological affiliations."

Some of the rejectees are starting to counterattack, by filing lawsuits. That will keep this story in the news. It's also noteworthy that the first plaintiff, a former Justice law clerk, is being represented by a longtime Justice lawyer named Daniel Metcalfe. Metcalfe, a career civil servant who served in Justice for 36 years under presidents of both parties before retiring early last year, publicly blasted the Bush team on his way out the door. He said that he yearned for the day when the department might "at least begin the process of restoring (its) previous reputation for political independence and the reliably even-handed administration of justice." He also said that the department was in dire need of “Watergate-style repair.”

The inspector general report on the job screeners is likely only the tip of the iceberg. Still to come is the big Justice story, a report that is expected to address the mystery firings in 2006 of eight U.S. attorneys - some of whom, as we know already, were deemed to be insufficiently zealous about aiding the Republican cause during election season. It will be instructive to see whether such a report is released during the '08 campaign, and, if so, what John McCain might wish to say about the track record of his Republican brethren. (Speaking of his brethren, it's worth noting that the purported "maverick" decided yesterday to restructure his sluggish '08 campaign by ceding power to a GOP operative with close ties to Karl Rove and the '04 Bush political team.)

But, with respect to the inspector general's probes, at least we are beginning to get a fuller accounting of the Bush institutional wreckage. As the Decider himself declared three years ago this month, in his inimitable way, "The best place for the facts to be done is by somebody who's spending time investigating it."

And with that burst of verbatim wisdom, I bid you all a great holiday.