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Witness Protection

The fired prosecutors develop an esprit de corps

Unlike some insta-scandals of recent years (Mark Foley, macaca), the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last December, like a good coffee, has been a slow-brew crisis. At first, the victims went quietly. But then we began to learn tidbits about their ouster: GOP officials had repeatedly called to threaten Thomas DiBagio from Maryland if he didn't back off an investigation of the Republican governor's friends; Senator Pete Domenici called the Justice Department four times over the past year and a half to complain about David Iglesias, who was not investigating a Democratic corruption scandal fast enough for his liking.

By the time yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings rolled around, Democrats, reporters, and goo-goo types were in high dudgeon. Expecting a rush, I arrived at the committee chamber three hours early only to find that overflow rooms had been set up to handle extra members of the press. As more reporters arrived, a committee aide tried to use her body as a human shield. "There's no more room at the press table! We have overflow seating down the hall!" A photographer turned bright red and called her a "child." Everybody wanted a front seat in what was sure to be yet another outright embarrassment for the administration; mostly, they got what they came for.

After three months spent knocking down the Justice Department's charge that they failed to uphold administration priorities or to perform up to standards (unsurprisingly, there is little evidence for these assertions and a great deal of evidence suggesting their firings were politically motivated), the fired U.S. attorneys have developed some esprit de corps. They have been e-mailing each other and comparing notes since the episode, and they seem to have cohered as a group since Iglesias's February 28 statement that he had been pressured by the Justice Department: "I didn't give them what they wanted. That was probably a political problem that caused them to go to the White House or whomever and complain that I wasn't a team player."

They were deeply insulted that the Justice Department blamed their performance, and they have cast themselves as bystanders in a political fight not of their own making. H.E. "Bud" Cummins III, from Arkansas, tried to tell Justice officials that "We weren't driving this train. This is between the administration and Congress. We were just witnesses caught in the middle." In fact, it's possible this scandal would never have blossomed into the media orgy it had become yesterday morning if the administration hadn't sought to justify the firings by making the prosecutors and their staffs look bad without reason, saying all but one of the prosecutors had been fired for "performance-related concerns."

At the hearing, four of them were clearly happy to hear their reputations restored, and they beamed as Chairman Chuck Schumer read the sterling résumés of each fired prosecutor in its entirety. Iglesias, he said, had been "a graduate of Wheaton College, the University of New Mexico Law School, an active duty U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General, a defense counselor at Guantánamo Bay, assistant state attorney general for the New Mexico office of special prosecutions, chief counsel for the New Mexico Risk Management Division, an assistant city attorney for Albuquerque, New Mexico, a White House fellow, a U.S. Attorney, and"--he said with a grin--"the inspiration for Tom Cruise's character in A Few Good Men. Both the book and the movie." Iglesias came off as a clean-cut young hotshot. Next to him, Cummins was the archetype of a wisecracking, seasoned southerner. John McKay--a circumspect, silver-haired man--was responsible for the whiz-kid LINX computer network, a way for law enforcement information agencies to share information. At some point between their mass firing on December 7 (which Iglesias noted, with little apparent irony, was Pearl Harbor Day) and their appearance before the newly empowered Democrats, they found comradeship--and issued a plucky, determined joint statement in the face of unspecified retaliatory threats from the Justice Department. "I'm not intimidated and I don't think my colleagues are either," said McKay yesterday.

The Republicans didn't bother to muster much of a response (perhaps they're just as exasperated with the administration as the Democrats). John Kyl appeared in the chamber briefly to assert that only the firing of Arkansas' prosecutor was political, but he accidentally referred to the state as Alabama and then disappeared. Alabama's Jeff Sessions delivered a meandering reminiscence of a time when gun crimes were the "bread and butter" of federal prosecutors. (The tone was accusatory, but most of his actual phrasing was submerged beneath his incomprehensible drawl.)

On the Democratic side, Patrick Leahy floated in to give the proceedings his blessing and evoke the era of Archibald Cox. Russ Feingold sat apart and came at the problem logically--noting that the administration has so many law enforcement "priorities" that a prosecutor can be conveniently dismissed for failing to fully attend to any one of them. Newbie Senators Ben Cardin and Sheldon Whitehouse--who looks like a squintier Richard Gere--sat in the corner, Whitehouse peppering his questions with "um"s and baroque phrases ("the mosaic of enforcement") like a freshman in a college discussion section.

But the best senatorial performances came from Chairman Schumer and ranking Republican Arlen Specter, who held court at the center of the inquisitors' table like the two old men from the Muppets--bobbing their heads sporadically and finishing each others' sentences. Schumer: "We share ... I know you share ... I know I share your determination to get to the bottom of this."

The Democrats were clearly smitten with their witnesses, all of whom were Republican appointees and all of whom assured the committee of their nonpartisanship, independence, and devotion to the public good (members of the group repeatedly emphasized that they all originally wanted to keep quiet until the Department of Justice mischaracterized the quality of their work). Maybe Democrats liked the idea because it provided a symbolic answer to an administration that has long insisted objectivity cannot exist. But who knew that objectivity could be so partisan?