Mukasey: Get government all terror-fighting tools

July 9, 2008 1:18:42 PM PDT
Democratic senators cited concerns Wednesday about political meddling and policies likened to racial and ethnic profiling in urging Attorney General Michael Mukasey to ensure the Justice Department abides by the laws it is supposed to enforce. "I wish you were more focused on restoring the department's role as protector of the rule of law," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told Mukasey at the end of nearly three hours of testimony. "Instead, you seem content to serve as a caretaker for the regime of excessive executive power established by the Bush administration."

Mukasey, eight months into his tenure as President Bush's third attorney general, said he is doing all he can to make sure that the once fiercely independent department recovers from months of scandal last year.

"It is equally crucial that the American people have complete confidence in the propriety of what we do," Mukasey said.

Republicans on the Senate panel largely left Mukasey unscathed.

But front and center on Democrats' minds was a recent Justice Department report that concluded politics improperly, and perhaps illegally, played a part in the 2006 hirings of newly graduated career attorneys and summer law interns. Liberal-leaning or Democratic law students with sterling credentials were passed over for the jobs in some cases, while GOP applicants with less impressive resumes were hired, the report showed.

Mukasey was nominated as attorney general last September - nearly a year after the problematic hirings that led, in part, to charges of a politicized Justice Department and triggered the resignation of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

"You indicated that you have worked to see to it that the department is not politicized," Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., told Mukasey. "Did you find it had politicized when you arrived?"

Mukasey noted that the department's inspector general had concluded that it was, but was reluctant to brand his employees as politically motivated. "What I found were enormously dedicated people who were very committed to my succeeding," he told Biden.

Biden persisted: "Did you find that some of those enormously dedicated people engaged in politicizing the administration of justice? That was my question."

"No," Mukasey said. "Otherwise I would not characterize them as enormously dedicated."

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., appeared equally frustrated when he asked Mukasey about a proposed Justice Department policy that would allow the FBI to investigate Americans without any evidence of wrongdoing. The tentative policy, first reported last week by The Associated Press, would let agents begin investigations by relying on a terrorist profile that could single out Muslims, Arabs or other racial and ethnic groups.

Mukasey made clear that race, ethnicity or religion would not be the only factor used in deciding whether to open an investigation. But he did not rule out the possibility that race and ethnicity might be used with other traits - like travel or gun ownership - to create a profile of a potential terrorist.

"I'm not prepared to discuss today particular hypotheticals one way or the other," Mukasey told Feingold, describing the policy largely as giving bureaucratic approval to a process that has been ongoing since shortly after the 2001 terror attacks. Mukasey also said such investigations - and what's used to trigger them - will undergo scrutiny both by senior FBI and Justice Department officials.

"I'll be following this very closely," Feingold responded.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent letters Wednesday to the chairmen and top Republicans of the House and Senate Judiciary panels, urging an investigation of the policy that could be enacted later this month.

Mukasey was in front of the Senate panel for the second of three oversight hearings planned for this year. He is expected to give similar testimony to House lawmakers later this month.

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