Demoralized. Discredited. Dysfunctional.
These words are among those used to sum up the state of the Justice Department under the watch of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who last week announced he will step down Sept. 17.
Much like a wounded patient in an intensive care unit, the department is in need of critical attention to revive its core mission: law enforcement.
Exactly how much influence Gonzales exerted throughout the department is still open to debate, but as his 2½-year tenure comes to a close, this much is clear: Main Justice is in disarray.
Current and ex-career employees, former political appointees, legal scholars, detractors, and supporters all tell the same story: The shortcomings are numerous and the successes few and far between.
With ongoing internal and congressional investigations into the firings of nine U.S. Attorneys, the controversial warrantless surveillance program, the politicization of the Civil Rights Division, and Gonzales' own testimony to Congress, it's hard to find observers willing to step out and put a positive spin on Gonzales' tenure. His detractors aren't so shy.
"There is no reasonable doubt that Alberto R. Gonzales will be remembered as one of the worst attorneys general in history and perhaps the most embarrassed, and embarrassing, Cabinet officers ever," says Daniel Metcalfe, a 30-year veteran of Justice who has become an outspoken critic since retiring in January as head of the department's Office of Information and Privacy. Some current Justice employees are just relieved to hear that Gonzales is stepping aside.
"The departure was a reassurance for a lot of people," says a career attorney in the Civil Division. "I'm looking forward to better times."
Not everyone is so critical of Gonzales' stewardship. His defenders highlight the creation of the National Security Division within the department and his emphasis on child exploitation as key accomplishments by the man who replaced John Ashcroft in February 2005.
"As for his legacy, the ironic thing is, I think he did a pretty good job as attorney general," says Viet Dinh, a former high-ranking official at the Office of Legal Counsel under Ashcroft.
RUBBER STAMP FOR THE WHITE HOUSE
Needless to say, not too many observers share Dinh's sunny assessment. Looking over the department's 40 offices, divisions and components, critics point to the Civil Rights Division and the Office of Legal Counsel as being the most tarnished under Gonzales' leadership. They also point to the Executive Office of Immigration Review as being heavily politicized under both Ashcroft and Gonzales. Records show that dozens of former Republican activists and loyalists without immigration law experience got jobs as judges there in recent years.
Evan Peterson, a Justice spokesman, last week strongly denied that politics had influenced some of the department's divisions or that the offices had become extensions of the White House.
But Douglas Kmiec, former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, says the office that oversaw the application of Gonzales' famed memo on interrogations must reinforce its commitment to independence.
"Much of the difficulty over torture memos and signing statements started in that office," says Kmiec, who teaches at Pepperdine University School of Law. "Somehow it lost its way. It lost its ability to say no. [The office] needs to get its act in order."
Dawn Johnsen, a former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under Attorney General Janet Reno, agrees.
"There are just appalling examples of the Department of Justice and its counsel acting as a rubber stamp for unlawful programs that the White House wanted to pursue," says Johnsen, a law professor at Indiana University.
The office is currently headed by Steven Bradbury, who holds the title of principal deputy assistant attorney general and whom the Senate has refused to confirm as the official head of the office for more than two years. Bradbury has been accused of using the office to facilitate White House legal requests and recently wrote a memo advising former White House officials, including former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, to ignore congressional subpoenas.
Democratic senators have questioned Bradbury's credentials and have asked the White House to appoint someone else to head the office. They also are upset that an inquiry by the Office of Professional Responsibility into Bradbury's role in the warrantless surveillance program was quashed by President George W. Bush, who refused to grant OPR investigators security clearances.
Justice spokesman Peterson said in an e-mail statement that the Office of Legal Counsel "has provided rigorous and objective legal advice" to the White House and the executive branch.
"There is no basis to assert that OLC has been politicized or is a rubber stamp for the White House," Peterson said.
At the Civil Rights Division, meanwhile, some career attorneys say their influence has diminished as new department heads and political appointees sought to reverse decades of key civil rights law enforcement under Gonzales and, earlier, Ashcroft.
"The damage done to one of the federal government's most important law enforcement agencies is deep and will take time to overcome," Joseph Rich, a former chief in the voting section of the Civil Rights Division who retired in 2005, said in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year.
Some career staff complain about being overruled on key re-districting plans -- which were later challenged in court. Other controversial practices, such as diverting the hiring duties from career staff to political appointees, began under Ashcroft, but ex-career officials say Gonzales let them continue unchecked. <more