WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Not since the Watergate scandal more than 30 years ago has the U.S. Justice Department been as politicized as under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, current and former officials said.
They said the department's integrity has been damaged, employee morale has been hurt and Gonzales' relations with the Democratic-controlled Congress have deteriorated beyond repair in a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers, including some Republicans.
Several senators said last month they had lost confidence in Gonzales and his ability to head the Justice Department, accusing him of misleading and possibly false testimony about his firing of nine U.S. prosecutors last year and the Bush administration's warrantless spying program.
Daniel Metcalfe, who resigned in January after serving as head of the department's Office of Information and Privacy since 1981, said Gonzales, the nation's highest-ranking Hispanic official, has become an embarrassment.
"Gonzales has shattered the Justice Department's tradition of independence and has politicized its operations more than any other attorney general since the Watergate era," said Metcalfe, who began working at the agency in 1971.
"The department badly needs a Watergate-style repair with a new attorney general who can restore its integrity and cease this process of ever-increasing damage to its reputation," said Metcalfe, now a law professor at American University.
John Koppel, a civil appellate attorney at the department since 1981, said last month in The Denver Post that the agency and the government have been thoroughly politicized. He called it "a national disgrace of a magnitude unseen since the days of Watergate."
Koppel wrote, "It is especially unheard of for U.S. attorneys to be targeted and removed on the basis of pressure and complaints from political figures dissatisfied with their handling of politically sensitive investigations and their unwillingness to 'play ball'."
While acknowledging mistakes in the handling of the dismissals, Gonzales has denied the firings were politically motivated to influence federal probes involving Democratic or Republican lawmakers.
Two Justice Department offices are investigating whether politics improperly tainted hiring practices, after Monica Goodling, a former aide to Gonzales, admitted posing political questions to job applicants for career, nonpartisan positions.
Gonzales has repeatedly rejected calls in Congress to resign and said he plans to stay in office for the rest of Bush's presidency.
Bush has defended Gonzales, who previously was White House counsel and a long-time aide when Bush was governor of Texas. The president has cited Gonzales' rise as an achievement for Hispanics, the largest minority in the United States.
"I haven't seen Congress say he's done anything wrong," Bush said at a recent news conference. "As a matter of fact, I believe we're watching ... a political exercise."
On Capitol Hill, an agreement on temporary legislation allowing Bush to maintain his controversial domestic spying program almost was scuttled, in part because of Gonzales' role in carrying out the program, congressional officials said.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the prior attorney general, John Ashcroft, said relations between Gonzales and the Senate Judiciary Committee have deteriorated beyond repair.
"There's nothing the attorney general can do to make things better," he said. "It's unfortunate because the Department of Justice is such an important place."
Several department officials cited low morale and said Gonzales' troubles had become a distraction. "It's almost like a cloud hanging over the department," one official said.
They said Gonzales is having difficulty finding replacements for a number of aides who have departed during the five months he has been under fire.