WASHINGTON — It’s not really Alberto Gonzales’ fault.

President Bush’s attorney general, who long ago relinquished any thread of credibility, finally gave up his position as the nation’s top law enforcement official Monday. He leaves the attorney general’s office as the most discredited man to hold the post since Richard Nixon’s John Mitchell.

The parallel is apt.

We do not yet know whether Gonzales was personally involved in rank criminality. We know only that the Justice Department, on Gonzales’ watch, was an arm of the White House political apparatus — as it was under Nixon — and that Justice lent its good offices to further the goals of the Republican National Committee.

This is what the congressional probe that began as an inquiry into the firing of nine U.S. attorneys has revealed. Gonzales, on various and repeated occasions, testified that he either did not recall or was ignorant of how the prosecutors were selected for termination. Some of the dismissed attorneys have made it plain they believe they were canned for failing to pursue the administration’s political agenda, whether it was pressing bogus voter fraud prosecutions against Democratic-leaning groups or indicting Democratic politicians or even failing to be sufficiently zealous in seeking the death penalty in criminal cases.

Gonzales’ sworn testimony about other crucial and controversial matters — notably, his role as White House counsel in the infamous hospital bedside visit by officials who tried to get Attorney General John Ashcroft to approve an eavesdropping scheme to which he’d already objected — is contradicted by the notes of the FBI director, Robert S. Mueller.

There came to be only two conclusions to be drawn about Gonzales. Either he was completely incompetent or unfailingly corrupt.

There is a stronger, third possibility, suggested by Gonzales’ entire history as consigliere to the Bush crowd. It is the one to which we must pay closest attention, for dozens more like Gonzales remain in their high offices. Gonzales was willing to do whatever the president and his political men required of him.

This is how he came to put his name on memos condoning torture, to call the Geneva Conventions obsolete, and to give his professional blessing to a legal framework for terrorism detentions that shreds decades of international law and with it the reputation of the United States.

The significance of Gonzales’ departure so soon after the announced leave-taking of White House political guru Karl Rove is not, as some would have it, merely that the last of Bush’s Texas loyalists are fleeing. It is that they were partners in building a scheme to subvert the entire federal government to political ends.

Earlier this month, documents released to congressional investigators showed that top Justice Department officials attended at least a dozen political briefings at the White House over the past six years, and at least one held at the Department of Agriculture. Many were led by Rove himself, and they focused on advancing the Bush agenda — and favored Republican candidates — in congressional elections. Gonzales had testified in July that he wasn’t aware of such briefings, which would violate federal law and departmental regulations if any were held at the Justice Department or at another federal department. Then the documents came to light.

The briefings expounded upon an elaborate system of “asset deployment,” developed by Rove, to use every conceivable asset of the federal government — grants, Cabinet officials’ time and travel budgets, media attention — to promote Republicans. The Bush people took a time-honored perk of incumbency and elevated it to a tipping point that may constitute a vast and illicit use of government resources. This is the sort of thing a vigilant attorney general is supposed to watch out for. Gonzales turned a blind eye, or was a part of it.

And it is why nothing about his resignation satisfies. We still have a president who does not give a whit that the “assets” his minions deploy in furtherance of partisan gain belong to the people of the United States. We have a president for whom loyalty to the White House, and not to public service or even the Constitution, seems still to be the sole criterion for tenure in high-level office.

Bush, not his devout lieutenant Gonzales, is responsible for what has gone on at the Justice Department and everywhere else his hacks are passed off as public officials.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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