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Continue attorney-firing probe Special prosecutor could help restore rules separating politics and justice

Attorney General Michael Mukasey did a giant favor to the cause of justice this week when he appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the possibility of criminal activity in the 2006 firings of federal prosecutors.

Overseen -- or perhaps ignored -- by his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales, the dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys raised plausible fears that the Bush administration was injecting partisan politics into the dispensation of justice.

On Monday, Mukasey issued a blistering report concluding that the firings were, indeed, politically motivated, and severely criticizing Gonzales for abdicating his responsibilities. But Mukasey also acknowledged that the story was incomplete because of the lack of cooperation of such major players as Karl Rove and Harriet Miers. Hence, the attorney general's decision to name a special prosecutor to pursue the matter.

That decision was not only appropriate, but urgent. Especially regarding the sacking of David Iglesias, the former prosecutor in New Mexico, the evidence strongly suggests that attorneys were hired and fired depending upon political factors such as their willingness to investigate -- or not -- according to the party registration of certain targets.

Political considerations are entirely appropriate for many federal positions, but the one where that absolutely cannot play any role is in enforcing the law.

Because of deplorable actions deliberately taken high in the Bush administration, Americans have been given reason to question if the Bush administration's commitment was to justice or political advantage.

That cannot go unchallenged, and with the appointment of Nora Dannehy, acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut, it won't. Dannehy, an expert in public corruption cases, must pursue the case diligently, not only to prosecute those who broke the law but to discourage any future attempts to taint the cause of justice. Almost certainly, that will require her to question -- and, if necessary, subpoena -- administration officials, including Rove, Miers or Monica Goodling, the former White House liaison to the Justice Department.

There is an especially disappointing local aspect to this case. Three years ago, Michael A. Battle, the U.S. attorney assigned to Buffalo, was promoted to head the Justice Department's Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, a position in which he was expected to influence hiring decisions.

Yet Mukasey's report depicts Battle as a go-along pawn in the Justice Department's sleazy game of politicized hiring and firing. Battle's record in Buffalo was always exemplary, and it is a shame he didn't have it in him to refuse potentially illegal orders to fire the prosecutors.

The late Elliot Richardson did that when, as attorney general, President Richard Nixon ordered him to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor. Instead, Richardson quit and helped to expose the venality within the White House. Battle should have done the same.

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