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Mukasey trumpets reform as his legacy at Justice

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The Justice Department was in turmoil when Michael B. Mukasey took over more than a year ago, embroiled in headline-grabbing controversies that ultimately led to the resignation of former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

Since then, Mr. Mukasey has guided a steady, if not quiet, course. And that may have been the idea.

"After the disaster that was the Gonzales tenure, Mukasey was just what the doctor ordered," said Tom Fitton, president of the conservative Judicial Watch. "His tenure was remarkable for being unremarkable."

On Thursday, in the waning days of his term as the nation's 81st attorney general, Mr. Mukasey gave a farewell speech to the department's employees.

Even his speech struck the sober tone that has marked his tenure.

"It has been an eventful 14 months, some events entirely satisfying, others perhaps less so - but all with some form of satisfaction," he said.

But Mr. Mukasey wasn't above injecting a bit of self-effacing humor, joking that some in attendance were there to see the answer to the question: "Can the attorney general get through a speech and remain vertical?" A reference to a frightening, but ultimately minor, health scare in which he collapsed while delivering a speech in November.

Mr. Mukasey, a New York native and retired federal judge, said he would leave it to others to assess his performance as attorney general, but he praised the department's employees and pointed out what he saw as several accomplishments, some relating directly to lingering criticisms from the Gonzales tenure, including charges of cronyism.

The attorney general put career staff members, instead of political appointees, in charge of hiring for entry-level lawyers and the summer law-intern program. An investigation by the department's inspector general found that under Mr. Gonzales, President Bush's appointees improperly used political considerations when hiring for those two programs.

"As a result of these reforms, I am confident that the department is thriving today, and that the institutional problems we identified will not recur," he said. "As a result of these reforms, distracting outside criticism has waned, and attention has returned to where it should be: to the valuable and skillful work that all of you are doing, and have always done."

Among the accomplishments Mr. Mukasey listed was the passage of an updated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He said the updated act helps monitor communications over new technology and plugs other intelligence gaps.

Mr. Mukasey also expressed pride in the development of new FBI protocols for handling national security cases.

Law enforcement officials say the guidelines don't give agents any new authority, but simply let them be more proactive in national security investigations. Critics say it allows the FBI to investigate virtually anyone and has raised fears of racial profiling.

"Those guidelines will help the bureau to remain the first-class crime solving agency it always has been," he said. "They also will continue its transformation into a first-class intelligence-gathering organization and a full-fledged member of the intelligence community that has helped assure that this country has not suffered a terrorist attack since September 11, 2001."

The attorney general also credited the department with helping to ensure the elections in November went smoothly. While Justice's role in the election didn't garner much attention, he said department employees worked hard for years to make sure the job was done right.

"It is obvious to the point of tautology to say elections are inherently political events, but with that comes a not-always-obvious danger that we ourselves can be drawn into partisan territory," he said. "Yet we managed to navigate these perils successfully by doing what we do best: by disregarding the political pressures and inevitable criticisms, and by going only where, and so far as, the facts and law led us."

While Mr. Mukasey worked to rise above political scrums, his tenure was not completely free of contention.

Several liberal senators threatened to hold up his nomination because he would not say categorically that an interrogation technique known as waterboarding was illegal. Waterboarding, which simulates drowning, has become symbolic of what critics of the Bush administration see as excesses regarding the treatment of suspect terrorists.

"The attorney general supported the president's overreaching executive power by failing to recognize that waterboarding was torture," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice.

Ms. Aron did, however, credit Mr. Mukasey for his efforts to end the politicization of the department. Accusations of politicization related to the firings of several U.S. attorneys led Mr. Gonzales to resign in 2007.

Mr. Mukasey's likely successor Eric Holder, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for attorney general, faces confirmation hearings next week.

About the Author
Ben Conery

Ben Conery

Ben Conery is a member of the investigative team covering the Supreme Court and legal affairs. Prior to coming to The Washington Times in 2008, Mr. Conery covered criminal justice and legal affairs for daily newspapers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He was a 2006 recipient of the New England Newspaper Association’s Publick Occurrences Award for a series of articles about ...

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