How did we get to where we are today? Even before the 2008 election, the warning signs were there. The man who was to become U.S. Attorney General told an audience during the election campaign that the Bush administration had permitted abuses in fighting terrorism. He said there would have to be “a reckoning.” During his subsequent tenure, in a moment of unguarded candor, he described himself as the President’s “wingman.” From the standpoint of the Justice Department, I can’t overstate the demoralizing significance of an attorney general saying something like that. If I had ever described myself, during my tenure, as President Bush’s wingman, I would have expected to come back to find the Justice Department building empty and a pile of resignations on my desk. Even Attorney General Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy’s brother, to my knowledge never described himself in such terms. Yes, the attorney general is a member of the administration—but his principal responsibility is to provide neutral advice on what the law requires, not to fly in political formation.
The problems in the DOJ won’t be solved simply by electing a less ideological president in 2016. Many of the political appointees of the past seven years will resign and take up career positions within the department, and once such people receive civil service status, it is virtually impossible to fire them. In other words, the next attorney general will be confronted with a department that’s prepared to resist policy changes. This will require great patience and dedication by the new political appointees in their efforts to return the department to its true mandate—not doing justice according to your own lights, or even according to the lights of the president who appoints you, but defending law and having enough faith in law to believe that the result, more often than not, will be justice.