To make sense of the burgeoning U.S. Attorneys scandal -- in which the Department of Justice under the direction of Alberto Gonzales fired eight U.S. Attorneys for what appear to be purely political reasons -- Rolling Stone's National Affairs Daily interviewed former U.S. Attorney Bob Barr, a Reagan appointee who went on to serve as a member of the House from 1995 to 2003. Barr said the conduct of the attorney general had undermined the rule of law and that Gonzales should step down.
Rolling Stone: Should Attorney General Gonzales be forced out?
Bob Barr: He should resign. This is the last straw in a whole series of -- what was the name of the Lemony Snicket movie? -- "Unfortunate Events" that have raised serious questions about the lack of leadership at the Department of Justice and there being too-cozy a relationship between an attorney general and the president.
RS: From what you've seen has there been criminal wrongdoing?
Barr: I think it's highly improper. Not unlawful. A president can remove a U.S. Attorney for whatever reason. They serve at the pleasure of the president. But what's happening here it's extremely troubling because it errodes the public's confidence in the integrity and impartiality of our federal justice system -- which is perhaps the most important component of upholding the rule of law. People have to have confidence in that system that it is fair and impartial. The public has a right to know if U.S. Attorneys are in fact being fired for partisan, political reasons.
RS: Did you experience political pressures as a U.S. Attorney?
Barr: I was facing a lot of pressure when I was prosecuting a sitting member of Congress in the Atlanta area. But the Department of Justice under both Ed Meese and then Dick Thornburg made it very clear to people who were calling for my scalp that as long as the U.S. attorney is proceeding with a legitimate prosecution, we're not going to stop it, or speed it up, or slow it down depending on political considerations or political pressures.
RS: What do you make of this talking point that "Clinton did this too."
Barr: I and a number of others were critical of president Clinton when he first came into office and almost immediately removed all U.S. Attorneys. But that's not the same thing as what's happening now.
We're seeing a president in his second term go after U.S. attorneys of his own party for reasons that are clearly political: not moving fast enough against targets on the other side of the aisle, succumbing to pressure from Senators for example. That is very, very corrosive, both to morale for U.S. Attorneys as well as in terms of reducing the confidence that the public has that the system is fair and impartial and non-partisan.