At the root of the congressional probe into the Bush administration's despicable, if not illegal, attempt to turn U.S. attorneys into partisan political tools is the question of whether the campaign went so far as to obstruct justice.
The validity of this inquiry has been amply confirmed by recent reports suggesting that under Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, tampering, at least, with ongoing legal matters has been a pattern.
As Congress explores White House involvement in the firing of Bush-appointed U.S. attorneys, it should also examine two other serious issues:
Mr. Gonzales' role in shutting down an internal investigation, requested by Democrats in Congress, of who in the administration authorized a program of domestic wiretaps without warrants, apparently in violation of the law. The attorney general appeared to be acting in the ultimate self-interest when, according to the National Journal, he advised President Bush last year to deny security clearances to investigators after learning his role in promoting the program - against the advice of other Justice Department officials - would be a focus of the inquiry.
The meddling of other political types at the department in drastically reducing penalties the government sought at the conclusion of its five-year fraud and racketeering prosecution of the tobacco industry. Their interference, over the objections of the trial attorneys, seems a brazen matter of sparing a politically well-connected industry $120 billion in penalties, a move that startled observers of the nine-month trial. Mr. Gonzales' top aides also tampered with witness testimony and rewrote a closing statement to the jury in a way that weakened the government's case, according to lead prosecutor Sharon Eubanks.
Odds are, more disgruntled lawyers and law enforcement officials will come forward with other examples now that the Democrat-led Congress has started poking in some long-ignored corners. Yet the pattern is already clear.
Mr. Gonzales must not see himself as a public official whose first responsibility is upholding the rule of law, but rather as the loyal advocate for a single client, the mentor who propelled him through his entire career.
Congress must determine if obstructing justice was part of Mr. Gonzales' portfolio.