Attorney general's exit is long overdue

Published May 20, 2007

Now that it has been arranged to have Paul Wolfowitz walk out the door at the World Bank, there is one bit of unfinished business: Alberto Gonzales. The attorney general is a cooked goose, except he and President Bush don't recognize the oven's been turned on. The revelations keep coming about Gonzales' lack of candor and his incompetence. The sooner he goes, the sooner professionalism and credibility will return to the Justice Department.

The latest scandal involves the role Gonzales played in invading the hospital room of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. The riveting congressional hearing testimony of former Deputy Attorney General James Comey of that night in March 2004 raises serious questions about Gonzales' legal judgment and integrity.

Comey had been given the temporary powers of attorney general while Ashcroft recovered from gallbladder surgery. But when Comey refused to reauthorize the warrantless domestic wiretapping program because the department's lawyers had determined that it wasn't operating within the bounds of law, then-White House counsel Gonzales and then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card tried to wrench approval from Ashcroft at his hospital bed.

After a very sick Ashcroft refused, it appears that Gonzales went along with the reauthorization of the program despite its determined illegality. According to Comey, it wasn't until a mass resignation of high-level department officials was threatened that the wiretapping program was revised in accordance with department recommendations.

Gonzales remains confused about our system of checks and balances. He has defended the idea that the president can ignore the law when it constrains his warmaking - a dangerous and misguided reading of the separation of powers, particularly when the war at issue is the amorphous war on terror. Gonzales' appearance at Ashcroft's hospital bed demonstrates once again that he cares more about the president's agenda than fealty to the law.

Pile this on top of the debacle of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, a controversy that continues to grow as more facts emerge, and it is clear this attorney general is unfit for the job.

Only President Bush expressed increased confidence in Gonzales after he testified recently about the U.S. attorney firings before a Senate committee. Gonzales' frequent memory lapses regarding key meetings and conversations was disconcerting. He was unable to explain the conflicting accounts he gave of why these U.S. attorneys were fired and to what extent he was involved in the decisionmaking.

After Gonzales' confused performance, even some Republicans were disgusted. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said Gonzales should resign, and other Republicans have joined him.

Senate Democrats intend to hold a no-confidence vote to register the chamber's growing dissatisfaction with Gonzales. How much more heat is needed before Gonzales follows Wolfowitz, either by choice or by a push from the White House?