Did Gonzales "Shatter" DoJ Independence?

The Legal Times features a Tony Mauro interview with former DoJ attorney Daniel Metcalfe, a 30-year veteran of the Department who most recently headed the Office of Information and Privacy. Metcalfe has served under a dozen Attorney's General, and claims that in terms of "politicization" of the department, "nothing compares to the past two years under Alberto Gonzales."

To be sure, he continued a trend of career/noncareer separation that began under John Ashcroft, yet even Ashcroft brought in political aides who in large measure were experienced in government functioning. Ashcroft's Justice Department appointees, with few exceptions, were not the type of people who caused you to wonder what they were doing there. They might not have been firm believers in the importance of government, but generally speaking, there was a very respectable level of competence (in some instances even exceptionally so) and a relatively strong dedication to quality government, as far as I could see.

Under Gonzales, though, almost immediately from the time of his arrival in February 2005, this changed quite noticeably. First, there was extraordinary turnover in the political ranks, including the majority of even Justice's highest-level appointees. It was reminiscent of the turnover from the second Reagan administration to the first Bush administration in 1989, only more so. Second, the atmosphere was palpably different, in ways both large and small. One need not have had to be terribly sophisticated to notice that when Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey left the department in August 2005 his departure was quite abrupt, and that his large farewell party was attended by neither Gonzales nor (as best as could be seen) anyone else on the AG's personal staff.

Metcalfe blames some of the problems at DoJ are due to "second-term drop off" in the caliber and experience of political appointees — a phenomenon he claims is more severe in Republican administrations — but he clearly places ultimate responsibility on the Attorney General and the culture he has helped create.

Metcalfe calls himself "a purposely nonpartisan registered independent," but his political sympathies are clear. I think it would be a mistake to discount his remarks on this basis, however. Even if [one believes that] he grossly overstates the case, his account should give even the most rock-ribbed Republican cause for concern.