The fired-attorneys case: a truly appalling possibility

Through the controversy over the eight U.S. Attorneys who were fired, I've been personally most interested in a potential ninth name on the list, since the ramifications involve the Congressman from Redlands, California, my home town. Details on this at the end of this post.

But there is a new development involving the original eight attorneys that potentially dwarfs in outright evil anything said, suggested, or suspected in the whole saga up till now. Indeed, the implications would be so appalling, if true, that for now I find it hard actually to believe the worst. Here are the facts:

Five and a half years ago, Thomas Wales was murdered in Seattle. He was shot, through the window of his home, as he sat working at his computer late at night. This was Tom Wales:


The killing took place on October 11, 2001. If the ruins of the World Trade Center had not still been smoking at the time, and if the nation's attention had not been completely (and naturally) riveted by that event, Tom Wales's death would likely have become major national news. He was 49 years old, and he had spent the previous 18 years as a federal prosecutor in Seattle, mainly working on white-collar crime cases. He was gregarious, modest, humorous, charming, vigorous, very active in community efforts, widely liked and admired. A significant detail is that one of the civic causes for which Tom Wales worked was gun safety and at the time of his death was head of Washington Cease-Fire. This FBI's "Seeking Information" poster issued after his killing is surprisingly forthcoming, even loving-sounding, about the background and virtues of the fellow law-enforcement officer whose murder the agency was investigating. My wife and I did not know him well, but during the two years we spent in Seattle in 1999 and 2000 we met him through his brother-in-law, our close friend Eric Redman, and greatly enjoyed the time we spent with him.

No one has been charged or arrested in his killing. But among the strange aspects of the case is that law enforcement officials fairly quickly began acting as if they knew exactly who they were looking for. For instance, a story last year in the Seattle Times said this about the case:

Agents have focused on a Bellevue airline pilot as their prime suspect. The pilot had been targeted by Wales in a fraud case that concluded in 2001.

Other reports over the years have emphasized that this same "prime suspect" was a gun enthusiast and zealous opponent of anyone he considered anti-gun. If - as is generally assumed - Wales was murdered for reasons related to his gun safety efforts and his past prosecutions, he would be the first federal prosecutor killed in the line of duty.

As best I have been able to tell from a distance, through the years law-enforcement and political officials from Seattle and Washington state have frequently complained that federal officials in Washington DC were not putting enough resources or effort into the case. The same Seattle Times story mentioned above goes into one of the disagreements. Everyone on the Seattle side of the story remembers that the Department of Justice in Washington DC sent no official representative to his funeral.

Until now, the heartbreak of the Tom Wales case, and the Washington-vs-Washington disagreement over how intensively the search for his killer was being pursued, had seemed entirely separate from Seattle's involvement in the eight-fired-attorneys matter. John McKay, the U.S. attorney in Seattle who was among the eight dismissed, appeared to have earned the Bush Administration's hostility in the old-fashioned way: by not filing charges of voter fraud after an extremely close election that went the Democrats' way. But this weekend's story in the Washington Post, based on testimony by Alberto Gonzales's former deputy Kyle Sampson, suggests that McKay's problems may have begun with his determination to keep on pushing to find Tom Wales's killer.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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