Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who 14 months ago took the helm of a Justice Department buffeted by allegations of politicization and struggling to prove its independence, said Thursday he was confident that “the Department is thriving today, with both spirits and standards high."
Mukasey, speaking at his farewell ceremony in the department’s Great Hall, pointed to a number of reforms he instituted upon taking his oath of office. The former chief judge of the Southern District of New York limited contact between the Justice Department and the White House, restored the role of career lawyers in making hiring decisions, and reinforced a merit-based system for hiring and recruitment “without regard for any improper consideration, be it politics, age, race or sexual orientation,” he said.
The Great Hall was filled to capacity, and Mukasey received several standing ovations during the hourlong ceremony. Mukasey devoted much of his speech to praising department employees, including Deputy Attorney General Mark Filip, who "brought a first-class intelligence, wit, integrity and work ethic to the job," he said. Mukasey announced that he would present Filip with the Randolph award, the highest honor the attorney general can bestow.
Mukasey, 67, replaced Alberto Gonzales, who resigned in August 2007 amid internal Justice Department and congressional investigations into the firing of nine U.S attorneys. The attorney general said he took a measure of comfort in that much of the misconduct was exposed and resolved by the department’s own watchdogs. He was referring to the department’s Office of Professional Responsibly and the Office of the Inspector General, which released three reports last year documenting abuses in hiring and violations of department regulations and civil service law by department employees.
Mukasey vowed that "the institutional problems we identified will not recur.” He has appointed a prosecutor to investigate whether any of the employees’ actions rose to the level of criminal wrongdoing.
“The department has shown that it is capable of conducting the necessary review of the conduct and practices of its own people and of others,” Mukasey said.
In Washington, Mukasey has been among the administration’s most ardent supporters of broad powers to fight terrorism. He helped push through amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that gave the administration more leeway in acquiring wiretaps, and instituted new guidelines expanding the FBI’s powers in criminal, national security, and foreign intelligence surveillance.
Mukasey also made oblique reference to the department’s role in condoning some of the Bush administration's most controversial legal policies, in particular the now infamous OLC memo that equated torture with nothing less than organ failure or serious injury. The memo was later rescinded.
“The pressure on these lawyers in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, was immense: The time was short, the stakes were high, and they were asked -- by people across the political spectrum -- to provide maximum legal flexibility to policymakers and operators.” Mukasey said. “It is hardly surprising that some of the decisions these lawyers made under those circumstances were wrong and, when viewed later in comparative calm, called for correction -- which the Department itself did.
"But it is one thing to review and, when appropriate, to correct a lawyer’s work; it is another thing altogether to subject that work to second guessing without appreciation for the circumstances or good faith in which it was done.”