The fired-attorneys case: a truly appalling possibility

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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:

wales1.jpg

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.

If this is so, it is obscene. Tom Wales represented everything the American public can hope for from its public servants. He made less money than he might have, in order to enforce the rules that made Americans' lives in general safer, more predictable, and more honorable. He showed that people with many options in life could choose a career in public service. He was a wonderful man. For his commitment, he was murdered, which was in a deep sense a crime against the entire public. The public in general has no way to punish or avenge that crime, but the law enforcement system does. If an administration has chosen to neglect that effort because - as has now been suggested - it didn't want to ruffle feathers in the pro-gun camp, that is as low an act as any we have heard of in modern politics. It would take us back to, say, the murders in Philadelphia, Mississippi more than 40 years ago -- but with the local officials trying their best to find the truth and the federal government covering up a crime.

I hope it proves not to be true - and that the dismissal of McKay was "simply" a matter of strong-arm partisan politics. That is what now passes for "good news" when it comes to the Administration's approach to the rule of law.

This story may well have been all over the blogosphere already. I'm not sure, because I'm writing now from Rangoon, Burma, where making internet contact of any sort is a challenge. That is another story.

Oh, yes, the hometown case: The ninth U.S. attorney. She is Debra Wong Yang, a U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles who resigned just before last fall's midterm elections. Before she resigned, she had been reportedly investigating corruption charges against Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis, who was then head of the House Appropriations Committee and who was then head of the House Appropriations Committee and who since 1978 has been a safe-seat Congressman-for-life from inland southern California. After she resigned, Ms. Yang reportedly received a $1.5 million bonus to join the well-known L.A. firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. As Adam Cohen pointed out in the New York Times:


She was hired to be co-leader of the Crisis Management Practice Group with Theodore Olson, who was President Bush's solicitor general and his Supreme Court lawyer in Bush v. Gore. Gibson, Dunn was defending Mr. Lewis in Ms. Yang's investigation... [A] possibility is that the timing of her departure was coincidental. That would make her lucky indeed: after more than 15 years of working for government, she decided to take a private sector job precisely when the White House counsel was apparently trying to fire her.


Good luck for one federal prosecutor. Terrible luck for another -- and, especially, for his children. They deserve to know the truth.

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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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