Tuesday, May 08, 2007

James Fallows and the U.S. Attorney Scandal

The Atlantic Monthly is a superb publication and James Fallows is one its finest writers. And that's precisely why his recent post is so disquieting. Specifically, Fallows speculates that the recent firing of U.S. Attorney John McKay in Washington State may have been attributable, at least in part, to his aggressive investigation into the as-yet unsolved murder of AUSA Tom Wales back on October 2001. Fallows provides the following backstory:

A significant detail is that one of the civic causes for which Tom Wales worked was gun safety and at the time of his death was head of Washington Cease-Fire. This FBI’s “Seeking Information” poster issued after his killing is surprisingly forthcoming, even loving-sounding, about the background and virtues of the fellow law-enforcement officer whose murder the agency was investigating. My wife and I did not know him well, but during the two years we spent in Seattle in 1999 and 2000 we met him through his brother-in-law, our close friend Eric Redman, and greatly enjoyed the time we spent with him.

No one has been charged or arrested in his killing. But among the strange aspects of the case is that law enforcement officials fairly quickly began acting as if they knew exactly who they were looking for. For instance, a story last year in the Seattle Times said this about the case:
Agents have focused on a Bellevue airline pilot as their prime suspect. The pilot had been targeted by Wales in a fraud case that concluded in 2001.

Other reports over the years have emphasized that this same “prime suspect” was a gun enthusiast and zealous opponent of anyone he considered anti-gun. If – as is generally assumed – Wales was murdered for reasons related to his gun safety efforts and his past prosecutions, he would be the first federal prosecutor killed in the line of duty.

As best I have been able to tell from a distance, through the years law-enforcement and political officials from Seattle and Washington state have frequently complained that federal officials in Washington DC were not putting enough resources or effort into the case. The same Seattle Times story mentioned above goes into one of the disagreements. Everyone on the Seattle side of the story remembers that the Department of Justice in Washington DC sent no official representative to his funeral.

Until now, the heartbreak of the Tom Wales case, and the Washington-vs-Washington disagreement over how intensively the search for his killer was being pursued, had seemed entirely separate from Seattle’s involvement in the eight-fired-attorneys matter. John McKay, the U.S. attorney in Seattle who was among the eight dismissed, appeared to have earned the Bush Administration’s hostility in the old-fashioned way: by not filing charges of voter fraud after an extremely close election that went the Democrats’ way. But this weekend’s story in the Washington Post, based on testimony by Alberto Gonzales’s former deputy Kyle Sampson, suggests that McKay’s problems may have begun with his determination to keep on pushing to find Tom Wales’s killer.

If this is so, it is obscene. Tom Wales represented everything the American public can hope for from its public servants. He made less money than he might have, in order to enforce the rules that made Americans’ lives in general safer, more predictable, and more honorable. He showed that people with many options in life could choose a career in public service. He was a wonderful man. For his commitment, he was murdered, which was in a deep sense a crime against the entire public. The public in general has no way to punish or avenge that crime, but the law enforcement system does. If an administration has chosen to neglect that effort because – as has now been suggested – it didn’t want to ruffle feathers in the pro-gun camp, that is as low an act as any we have heard of in modern politics. It would take us back to, say, the murders in Philadelphia, Mississippi more than 40 years ago — but with the local officials trying their best to find the truth and the federal government covering up a crime.

I hope it proves not to be true – and that the dismissal of McKay was “simply” a matter of strong-arm partisan politics. That is what now passes for “good news” when it comes to the Administration’s approach to the rule of law.

Yes, at first blush the above has all the attributes of one of Oliver Stone's more fevered deliriums. Unlike Stone, Fallows strikes me as an exceptionally sober and thoughtful individual. It will be interesting, indeed, to see how this plays out.

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