When Michael Mukasey became attorney general eight months ago, Democrats were hopeful that he would take an aggressive role in overhauling the Justice Department, which had become embroiled in various scandals over the last few years. At a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing Wednesday, Democrats told Mukasey that so far, they have been disappointed.
The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), accused Mukasey of reneging on his promise to review and potentially withdraw Justice Department legal opinions that authorized controversial national security policies. In written closing remarks, Leahy said, "I wish you were more focused on restoring the department's role as protector of the rule of law. Instead, you seem content to serve as a caretaker."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) accused Mukasey of a "pronounced reluctance to look backward into the problems at the Department of Justice."
And Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) listed ways in which she said she believes the department was politicized in the last few years, including civil rights enforcement, hiring of immigration judges, U.S. attorney firings, detainee treatment and spying laws. Feinstein concluded her litany by telling Mukasey: "In the view of many of us, the department has lost enormous credibility."
The attorney general told Feinstein that he has made policy changes in some areas but that many others are already being investigated. "When those reports are received," he said, "they will be acted upon."
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) asked why Mukasey has not done more to hold accountable people who were faulted in a recent Inspector General report documenting politicized hiring in the prestigious Justice Department Honors Program. Mukasey replied, "To the extent there is to be accountability, that was covered in the [Inspector General] report."
Whitehouse seemed to capture the frustration many Democrats feel with the Justice Department, saying, "If we can't be assured that you're looking backward, we can't be assured that it's been cleaned up. And if we can't be assured it's cleaned up, we can't be satisfied that the Department of Justice is back where it needs to be."
Looking forward, Feingold asked about a proposed set of guidelines that would let the FBI investigate Americans based on a profile that could include the person's race or ethnicity, even if the person isn't suspected of a crime.
Mukasey told Feingold that a person's race alone would not be enough to open an investigation.
Feingold then asked whether a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent who traveled frequently to Pakistan would be subject to investigation by the FBI. Mukasey replied that he was not prepared to discuss hypothetical situations.
He said Judiciary Committee members would have an opportunity to review the final policy before it is released.