Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has begun reaching out to federal prosecutors around the country, trying to reassure those who may have been rattled by the continuing furor over the dismissal of eight of their colleagues last year.
He's also talking about the tug-of-war between what Washington wants and what prosecutors can deliver in their local districts.
"I look forward, quite frankly, to hearing their concerns," Gonzales said. "I'm going to share my views. Next week I'm going to be traveling to different parts of the country and meeting, hopefully, with the entire U.S. attorney community."
Thursday, while in St. Louis to promote a campaign against child sexual exploitation, Gonzales met face-to-face with two federal prosecutors.
The Justice Department says Gonzales wants to talk with all of the prosecutors about how to balance national priorities with the local challenges in each of their districts.
The department hasn't always been so eager to listen.
Former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam of San Diego, for example, argued that even though illegal firearms are a top Justice Department priority, they're not an overwhelming problem in her district. There, she said, gun crimes are adequately handled by local authorities, using California's strong gun laws.
That argument didn't wash with Lam's Washington bosses, who cited a lack of gun prosecutions as one reason for her dismissal in 2006.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) complains that the firing of Lam and others was a heavy-handed attempt at centralized control.
"What happened in this case sends a signal, really through intimidation by purge: don't quarrel with us any longer," he says.
Whitehouse — a former federal prosecutor — says no matter how much the Department of Justice wants to call the shots from Washington, it's important for U.S. attorneys to have a measure of freedom.
"It's the U.S. attorneys in the field that have to face the judges and juries in their district. It's the U.S. attorneys in the field that have to deal with the agents on the ground," he said. "And it's not unknown for a wild or misguided idea to come flying out of the Department of Justice. And to have United States attorneys who can respectfully push back and say, 'You know, that's not such a great idea,' is very important."
Prosecutors acknowledge that it's up to the Justice Department to establish priorities. But former federal prosecutor Richard Rossman notes that U.S. attorneys were hard at work around the country for about 100 years before there even was a centralized Justice Department. He says there's always been a natural tension between the two.
"When I was U.S. attorney back in the eastern district of Michigan, I had thought Washington had too much influence over U.S. attorneys," he said. "And then when I was the No. 2 official in the criminal division in the Clinton administration, I thought the opposite."
Another former U.S. attorney, Jim Brady, thinks the Justice Department has more central control now than when he was a federal prosecutor in the late '70s. But even so, he says, most U.S. attorneys aren't pushovers who will automatically toe the party line.
"U.S. attorneys are strong individuals who are from that area, who know that area, who are good lawyers, didn't become U.S. Attorneys because they were wallflowers. (They) will have their opinions," he says. "And that's exactly what would happen with us."
Brady says it's important to preserve that independence, or an already cynical public may grow even more so.
"Every time you'd see an indictment, somebody will think, 'I wonder if the fix was in?'"
Fixing that impression is one of many challenges now facing Gonzales.