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The Miami Herald - What We Need is a New Attorney General


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By Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

The appointment of an attorney general is an historic occasion and an opportunity for Americans to celebrate their commitment to justice and the rule of law. Never has the celebration and revitalization of these principles been as important as it is today. With the long overdue resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the president has the opportunity to restore America's faith in the Department of Justice by nominating an individual that meets the nation's highest ideals for its top prosecutor.

Gonzales' failed leadership has left the Department of Justice mired in controversy. Congress and the inspector general are investigating the degree to which politics infected personnel decisions and prosecutorial discretion within the department and whether Gonzales lied to Congress about the warrantless wiretapping program. The morale of the hard-working career employees that form the department's core is at an all time low and much of the department's top leadership has resigned under a cloud of controversy, leaving a leadership vacuum at a time when our country faces resurgent crime rates and the threat of terrorism.

The nation needs an attorney general who will restore the dignity and integrity of the Department of Justice. He or she must:

• Uphold the rule of law. He or she cannot merely be an apologist for the administration. He or she must examine the administration's consolidation of unchecked power in the executive branch, its policies regarding the detention and treatment of terrorism suspects, its warrantless wiretapping program and its practices for issuing national security letters. The attorney general is the embodiment of American justice. He or she must protect Americans' rights and civil liberties, not merely rubberstamp the president's policies.

• Restore Americans' faith in their criminal justice system. He or she must eliminate the inappropriate consideration of partisan politics from the hiring and firing of those charged with enforcing our laws and investigate serious charges that White House political operatives scotched some investigations and pushed others to favor Republican candidates for office. He or she must reform divisions within the department, like the Civil Rights Division, which Gonzales remade to further a partisan political agenda rather than to fight crime and enforce the law.

• Be a straight talker who will level with Congress and the American people, not dodge and dissemble as was Gonzales' practice. Congress and the Department of Justice need to work together to address the threat of terrorism, the challenge of rising crime rates and the scourge of corruption. We need an attorney general who will provide direct and forthright answers, not ''I don't recall,'' ''I don't know'' and ``I'm sorry, I can't answer that.''

• Rededicate the department to fighting crime. The last two attorneys general have presided over the conversion of 1,000 FBI agents from fighting crime to fighting terrorism and made no effort to replace them. Meanwhile, swayed by the administration's warped version of federalism, they slashed federal assistance to state and local law enforcement, ignoring irrefutable evidence that more police on the streets means less crime. Reports by the FBI and the Police Executive Research Forum indicate that violent crime is climbing at the fastest rate in more than a decade, with murder rates rising by double-digit percentiles in many major cities.

In 1975, in the wake of Watergate, President Ford restored dignity and integrity to the Department of Justice by nominating Edward Levi, then president of the University of Chicago. President Ford didn't know Levi or his politics. Levi acted decisively to reform the FBI and investigate the Nixon administration's abuses and invasions of privacy. We find ourselves in need of an attorney general in the mold of Levi now more than ever.

The president should view the nomination of a new attorney general as an opportunity to begin to rebuild the credibility of the Department of Justice in the eyes of the American public, Congress and the world. He should use the occasion to send a message that the United States abides by our Constitution, respects the rule of law and scrupulously avoids partisan influence in our criminal justice system. The president can make a small but significant step in this direction by nominating a candidate of unquestioned independence, intellect and integrity to be the next attorney general of the United States.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., is a member and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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