Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was in San Diego recently to trumpet a major drug bust. After a 20-month investigation, authorities broke up a smuggling ring, arresting more than 400 people, seizing more than 18 tons of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines and confiscating $45 million in drug profits. Yet as Gonzales and I sat down for a quick interview, the conversation wandered off to the recently fired U.S. attorneys, immigration reform, and a notorious case involving ex-Border Patrol agents. He even brought up baseball. The graduate of Harvard Law School and pride of Humble, Texas, is a huge fan.

So it was no surprise when, in discussing the firings of eight U.S. attorneys — a subject on which Congress held hearings this past week — Gonzales started to sound like the manager of a team. “What I care about,” he said, “is, ‘Are we trading up?’ Are we going to make an improvement in the performance in that (judicial) district?” That may not be easy to do. Most of those who were dismissed had stellar performance reviews. Still, Gonzales disputed the suggestion that the firings may have been politically motivated.

“Some of the reasons that have been speculated are just not true,” Gonzales said. “For example, the notion that we would remove someone because they failed to pursue a public corruption case, we would not do that.” “I have an obligation,” he continued, “to ensure that we have the best people. All I will say is that the decisions that were made … were based upon performance, and there are many factors that go into that.”

Gonzales has one good argument on his side: U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. “We have to remember that these are political appointees,” he said. “These people were put in initially in large part because we thought they support the president’s priorities and support the president’s policies. And the president is entitled to have the people he wants as part of his team.”

Gonzales and Bush seem much more committed to keeping on their team U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton. It was his office that prosecuted the case of ex-Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, who went to prison for shooting a drug smuggler. Sutton ‘will continue to have my full support,” Gonzales said. “We’ve known each other for many years. … Johnny is a law-and-order kind of guy. He does what he thinks is right.” Gonzales is also committed to the case. “What happened here was not Border Patrol agents doing their jobs,” he said. “They broke the law. … This was not just a question of agents shooting at an unarmed man, running away from them, who posed no deadly threat to their safety, but they lied about it. They covered it up. They concealed it. We can’t tolerate that.”

Gonzales also thinks that some of the public’s reaction to the case has to do with the anxiety that many Americans feel about immigration. That’s why the administration wants some sort of immigration reform that combines enforcement with a guest worker program and a path to legalization for illegal immigrants already here. After a few months of hiatus, Congress has now returned to that issue. The administration expects results. “The president laid out his principles for comprehensive immigration reform,” Gonzales said, “and he was very clear in saying he would not support amnesty.”

When I asked him how much of the debate is anchored in nativism, Gonzales smiled and said, “I’m not sure that I’m the best person to ask that because of the fact of my ancestry.” “That’s why I asked,” I said. I figured Gonzales might have some additional insights because of his ethnicity. He did. The nation’s first Mexican-American attorney general doesn’t seem too anxious over immigration and the changes it brings to the country. “Our country is so great because we’re a land of immigrants,” he said. “It is part of who we are, part of our history, part of our tradition. In many ways, it’s one of the strengths of our country.”

The nation’s top cop is right about that. He’s also right about the ex-Border Patrol agents. But he may yet be proved wrong on whether the firing of the U.S. attorneys amounts to “trading up.” As batting averages go, that’s not bad. But it could stand some improvement. Trouble is, we’re headed into the final innings of this administration.

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