STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's talk next about the people who are not leaving the Justice Department. Even before Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned yesterday, some top aides left in the scandal over firing U.S. attorneys. So, the question is who will lead the department and where it goes next.
We've called Donald Ayer who spent much of his career at the Justice Department. He was a U.S. attorney and served as deputy attorney general under the first President Bush. Mr. Ayer, welcome to the program.
Mr. DONALD AYER (Former Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice): Hi. How are you?
INSKEEP: I'm doing fine. Thanks very much. When you think about the professionals of the Justice Department, what kind of leader are they going to need next?
Mr. AYER: Well, a lot of people have been saying, and I think it's entirely right, that what needs to happen now is the appointment of a well-known lawyer of high integrity and independence. And the reason why is really related to what's gone on over the last several years with Attorney General Gonzales.
People who serve in the department and in the public service positions often are motivated by an ideal of what they're doing. And the ideal in the Justice Department, and the one that I think everyone holds when they think about the Justice Department, is a place that administers the law fairly and evenhandedly and with no partisanship or favor for any person.
And the really terrible thing that's gone on in the last few years is that Attorney General Gonzales apparently was sent to the department to continue to pursue a mission that for some reason President Bush wanted pursued, which was a mission to collapse the independence of the department.
INSKEEP: You're talking about the allegations that U.S. attorneys were asked to prosecute Democrats, that civil rights cases were twisted in certain ways, that voting rights cases were twisted in certain ways, and other allegations at work.
Mr. AYER: All of those and others. I think it all began, really, when he was at the White House Counsel's office. And, you know, you have the generation under his supervision and direction of opinions of a very shabby nature. The best known of which is the torture memo, the torture opinion, that justified behavior that now we recognize again to be illegal. But it was done by, you know, a single deputy in the Office of Legal Counsel without any real direct involvement of the head of the Office of Legal Counsel himself.
INSKEEP: Well now, let me just ask you, though, with a little more than a year left in the Bush administration, and presumably it'll take a little time to get a successor, how much can a successor really accomplish to change things?
Mr. AYER: Well, I think the critical thing is not so much a matter of changing policies or implementing particular plans with regard to prosecutions or something like that. What is critical and what really has to happen is a person needs to be selected who needs to recognize that mistakes have been made, what these mistakes are, and the egregious nature of the mistakes.
We need again to do essentially what happened after Watergate when Ed Levi came in as the attorney general. He was there for about two years and he made huge changes of a real nature, but also of a symbolic nature. And I actually began practicing law around that time and came out of law school and went into government to be an assistant U.S. attorney, inspired by the ideal of an independent office that made judgments totally separate from politics. We need a person to come in and do what Ed Levi did then.
INSKEEP: Mr. Ayer, thanks very much.
Mr. AYER: Okay. Thank you.
INSKEEP: Donald Ayer was deputy attorney general in George H. W. Bush's administration, 1989-1990.
You can get an analysis of what Alberto Gonzales' successor will face at the Justice Department - more analysis we should say - by going to our Web site, npr.org.