Above the Law:

Secret Deals, Political Fixes and Other Misadventures
of the U.S. Department of Justice

By David Burnham

392 pages. Scribner. $24.95

Reviewed by Glynn R. Wilson



The U.S. Department of Justice has been the subject of much public scorn in recent years, most notoriously for the FBI raid on Ruby Ridge and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' ill-fated attack of the Branch Dividian's compound at Waco, Texas.

Now comes an authoritative missive from investigative reporter and author David Burnham, who's latest book, "Above the Law," tells a tale of political woe that will confirm your worst fears about this largest of federal bureaucracies.

Do not expect the fast, page-turning pace of a Ludlum or Gresham thriller. This book is chock full of facts. But if you want to read a definitive account of how politics and chaos has largely dominated this supposedly just department of the federal government, Burnham's work is a must read.

Burnham does not pander to the conservative critics who focus their sights on attacks by the feds against right-wing groups. This is a more objective effort, equally critical of presidents and attorney's general from both parties, from democrats Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton to republicans Nixon, Reagan and Bush.

In addition to proving that justice is often manipulated for partisan political considerations, as we all suspected, Burnham concludes that no real priorities are set and enforced by any of the hundreds of U.S. Attorneys General around the country, which has resulted in the squandering of public resources on an ill-conceived "big, bad, dumb" war on drugs, for example.

His statistical analysis shows how one-fourth of the cases occupying the time of Justice Department agents and half the agency's budget are devoted to drug cases, while less than one-percent is devoted to prosecutions of the nation's worst polluters and corporations whose violations of health and safety laws take far more lives than drug related homicides.

"The very idea of a coherent national effort to protect the environment is largely an illusion," he concludes.

From illegal eavesdropping, search, seizure and forfeiture to failure to prosecute powerful white-collar criminals, Burnham indicts the agency for misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance, "the failure to do what duty requires." No component of the Justice Department escapes Burnham's brutal analysis and acid pen, from the solicitor general, the 93 U.S. attorneys scattered throughout the country, the FBI, the anti-trust division, the DEA, the INS, the U.S. Marshals Service to the Bureau of Prisons.

While the Civil Rights Division created in the 1960s is given credit for furthering the voting rights of the nation's African-American citizens, Burnham documents case after case in which those same voting rights were purposely diluted in the 1980s. During the Reagan-Bush era, the statistics and the facts in those cases show that the department targeted black Democrats for prosecution and harassment, while U.S. Attorneys and investigators looked the other way when it came to the reported crimes of white, male Republicans.

Burnham shows how federal prosecutions of state and local political figures under Republican administrations, and the lack of prosecutions of corrupt federal politicians, actually undermined one of the main objectives of the Founding Fathers: "the maintenance of strong local and state governments as a bulwark against national tyranny." This exposes another contradiction between Republican rhetoric and action. While Reagan and Bush preached about returning power to state and local governments, some of their policies exercised through the Justice Department counteracted the stated goal.

"To a surprising extent," Burnham writes, "analysis of federal enforcement data and follow-up interviews strongly suggest that the Justice Department has largely ignored Congress's mandates. The evidence demonstrates that (the agency) is a chaotic, slipshod, almost medieval institution which has largely failed to coordinate federal enforcement and regulation efforts."

A former New York Times reporter himself, Burnham also takes the press to task for too often cozying up to powerful law enforcement officials in the interest of scoops.

Implicit in the First Amendment's command that Congress make no law abridging the freedom of the press, he writes, "is the notion that aggressive and skeptical reporting is essential to the maintenance of freedom." While he shows how the press and the electronic media have largely been willing accomplices in manipulation by the Justice Department, Burnham's book does the job that the press often does not do.

This book is a major example of how the press should inform the public in a democratic society. More than ever in our fast-paced society, we need far more of this kind of reporting in America.

Aided by Syracuse University researcher Susan Long, Burnham combines historical research, traditional investigative reporting, and social science research methods, with cutting edge computer assisted reporting techniques. The result is exactly what Walter Lippmann and Thomas Dewey called on journalists to do in the 1920s for the sake of an informed public in a democratic society.

Too bad is it's taken us three-quarters of a century to get there. The good news is we are there, at least in book form. Perhaps if journalists would learn to utilize these same techniques on a more frequent basis, Americans could make more informed choices and this democracy, at least, would be the healthier for it.

(At the time of this writing, Glynn Wilson was a journalism instructor at Georgia

Copyright 1996 Glynn R. Wilson. All rights reserved.

One of the cases documented is former Ala. Gov. Guy Hunt's. He was later convicted and removed from office. His followers are mounting an effort to pardon him. To read my letter against this go to the Birmingham Post-Herald's Op/Ed Page from Friday, May 30, 1997