WASHINGTON — Whoever replaces Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will face a daunting challenge.
Charges of cronyism and partisan politicking have sunk the Justice Department's reputation to levels not seen since Watergate and damaged the Bush administration's ability to fight crime, pursue the war on terrorism and achieve its other goals, current and former department officials said.
President Bush has downplayed the criticism of Gonzales as political mudslinging, but if he selects a new attorney general who seeks to restore the department's independence and professionalism, he could repair the damage before the end of his administration, said officials who've served both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Restoring the department's reputation also could give the administration more elbowroom to pursue its own agenda.
"The Justice Department needs to be depoliticized," said Guy Lewis, who oversaw the U.S. attorneys' offices under former Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft. "Loyalty to the president is a wonderful thing, but it can't be the be all and end all."
For the most part, Justice Department lawyers said, the scandal did little to disrupt the day-to-day prosecution of cases. But Gonzales' handling of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and his subsequent shifting testimony damaged morale and the public's perception of a politically impartial Justice Department.
Federal judges, who're traditionally reticent to criticize the executive branch, have been scratching their heads ever since the controversy began, said one jurist who called the saga a "tragicomedy."
"The recent tenure of Attorney General Gonzales has been a horrible debacle in a great many ways," said the judge, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter. "To the extent that this controversy discredits the overall public view of the justice system, it is really of concern to many of us."
The department's standing was especially hurt by revelations that Gonzales' aides had screened job applicants based on their political credentials and by allegations that they'd pressured Justice Department lawyers who were overseeing politically sensitive cases, current and former officials said.
Adding to the concern about the department's ability to remain impartial, Gonzales changed policy in a way that allows White House officials unprecedented access to information about pending criminal and civil cases. When Congress confronted him about the change, he testified that he, too, was concerned when he realized the possible effect.
Gonzales appears to have had little sense of the inner workings of his own department, some lawyers said.
When he was told that budget cuts meant that U.S. attorneys would be filing fewer cases, Gonzales turned to aides and asked, "When were you going to tell me this?" people familiar with the meeting said.
Paul Charlton, one of the Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys whom Gonzales fired, recalled that the attorney general raised eyebrows when he spoke at an annual meeting with U.S. attorneys about what he saw as the department's mission.
"He told us to remember that we work for the president," Charlton said. "Many of us, particularly the career people, were taken aback by that. Yes, we serve at the pleasure of the president. But we work for the people, not just the president."
Gonzales attempted to exert tight control over the U.S. attorney's offices, unlike prior Republican administrations, which had worked to ensure that their top prosecutors had greater independence.
The attorney general and his aides pushed department lawyers in the field to carry out the president's priorities, sometimes to the detriment of local needs.
"It's OK to tell a U.S. attorney that they're not cutting the mustard because they're not prosecuting immigration cases," said Bill Mateja, a former federal prosecutor in Texas and a former senior counsel under Ashcroft. "But it's not OK to bring politics to bear, and in some cases it appears there was more of a focus on the politics and less of a focus on actually fulfilling the president's initiatives."
In Washington, some Justice Department lawyers said open debate was discouraged.
"It's an intimidating environment," said one department lawyer who asked not to be identified for that reason. "There's a sense you're either with us or against us, that even if you're talking in the halls it can be overheard and be held against you if you're critical."
By the time Gonzales announced his resignation this week, he was an isolated figure shadowed by bodyguards and cut off from his own employees.
Some department lawyers said they felt they were no longer trusted by their own employer, even with information that directly concerned them. As the news broke that Gonzales had decided to step down, Washington lawyers who were checking the department's intranet network found no information about their boss's departure.
The Justice Department didn't respond to requests for interviews with Acting Deputy Attorney General Craig Morford or another high-ranking department official.
In an e-mail, department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that before Gonzales stepped down, he "took the initiative to address some issues and concerns that have been identified, including hiring practices which occurred before he became attorney general."
The changes, which Gonzales outlined to employees in July, included involving career lawyers in hiring interns, in response to concerns that political appointees were trying to weed out liberal-leaning law school graduates.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee and a former U.S. attorney, said the Justice Department appeared to have altered its hiring practices in the wake of the controversy. However, he said he thought that an independent review might be needed to address other problems caused by the politicization of the department.
"The doors were really kicked down," he said. "The sooner Congress can be confident that things are set right, the better."
To regain public trust, the new attorney general should publicly announce additional measures to dispel suspicion about the department's motives and be prepared to be more open about changes in policy, said Philip Heymann, a Harvard law professor and a former Clinton administration deputy attorney general.
Following the example of other attorneys general from Republican and Democratic administrations, Gonzales' successor needs to make it clear that the White House and Congress won't influence decisions about individual cases, he said.
"This is not a matter of whether you're on the left or right," Heymann said. "The president should not be recommending prosecutions, and the same is true of Congress."
Heymann also recommended walling off the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel from White House interference.
Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey told Congress that Gonzales, as White House counsel, had tried to pressure a hospitalized Ashcroft to reverse the office's conclusion that a secret terrorism-surveillance program was illegal.
"The president doesn't have to do what the department's legal counsel recommends," Heymann said. "If you believe he's wrong, say he's wrong. But you shouldn't mess with your legal counsel giving you honest advice."