WASHINGTON — Attorney General Michael Mukasey on Wednesday dismissed allegations of widespread politicization within the Justice Department, saying he hadn't seen evidence of it since he took office eight months ago.
Mukasey's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee came after the Justice Department's inspector general concluded last month that some officials were weeding out job and internship applicants with liberal credentials before Mukasey took office.
When Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., asked him whether he'd found that the department had been politicized, Mukasey said he'd instead encountered "enormously dedicated people who are very committed to my succeeding."
"That's not my question," Biden replied. "Did you find that some of those enormously dedicated people engaged in politicizing the administration of justice?"
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"No," Mukasey said. "Otherwise, I would not characterize them as enormously dedicated."
"Well, that's amazing," Biden said in disbelief.
Mukasey later elaborated that he thought that the problem was isolated to two officials who've since left the department. The inspector general singled out Michael Elston, the former chief of staff to former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, and Esther McDonald, a former Justice Department lawyer, as breaking federal hiring laws. Mukasey also pointed out that the department had instituted changes that he thought would address the matter.
His response drew sharp criticism from Democrats, who accused him of ignoring a larger pattern that they thought that the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 had uncovered.
"Mr. Mukasey, I'm really disappointed in your answer," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., before rattling off a long list of allegations, including that politics had been injected into hiring, firing, corruption investigations and voter-fraud prosecutions.
"What I want you to know is that in the view of many of us, the department has lost enormous credibility because of the things that I've mentioned," she said.
Throughout the hearing, Democrats voiced frustrations with what they described as Justice's lackluster review of controversial decisions by the Bush administration.
The White House and Congress are locked in a constitutional battle over whether certain administration officials should be forced to testify in congressional inquiries.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said Tuesday that he'd move to cite Mukasey for contempt if Justice didn't turn over records of an FBI interview with Vice President Dick Cheney during the investigation into the leak of a CIA officer's name.
Last week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., threatened to hold former White House political director Karl Rove in contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena. The House of Representatives wants to ask him about allegations that he and other political operatives pressured the Justice Department to prosecute Southern Democrats, including former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked Mukasey whether he thought Rove should answer questions about the controversy.
Mukasey said it "very much depends" on what the Justice Department's internal investigation finds.
Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, R.I., grilled Mukasey on his decision to review only current detainee interrogation policies rather than scrutinizing the more controversial, but now defunct, Justice memos that critics say endorsed the use of torture.
Mukasey acknowledged flaws in previous legal opinions.
"After Sept. 11 there was an enormous amount of pressure to find the maximum that could be done," he said. "There were opinions prepared that were not up to the standard."
However, he said he saw no need to review them now that they were no longer in effect, and that he thought their "ultimate bottom-line conclusions" were "permissible, although not for the reasons outlined in those opinions."
He didn't specify what policies or rationale was faulty yet permissible.