As subtle as the movement of the hand of a clock, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh is edging the Justice Department out of the Meese era. Aug. 23: On his second day in office, Mr. Thornburgh says he is reconsidering a last-minute order by his predecessor, Edwin Meese III, that would subject Congress to independent counsel investigations.
Sept 1: Thornburgh announces a new travel policy barring official trips by department employees unless the trips relate directly to their jobs. The move, which came on the last day of a trip by Mr. Meese and five department officials to Japan, was seen by some as a rebuff to Meese.
Sept. 6: The new attorney general removes William Bradford Reynolds from his position as counselor to the attorney general. Mr. Reynolds, the controversial head of the civil rights division, was considered Meese's closest confidant in the department.
Sept. 12: Thornburgh removes Patrick Korten as his chief spokesman. Mr. Korten had taken the place of Terry Eastland, who was fired by Meese, reportedly because he felt Korten would wage a more vigorous defense for Meese.
Barely a month in office, Dick Thornburgh is already shaping the Justice Department into his own image. Justice watchers note that some changes, like personnel moves, are natural. But, they say, the changes are symbolic of a shift in direction for the department - a shift that has already been felt, both in style and in substance.
With only four months left in the Reagan administration, this might seem a futile exercise. But Thornburgh is widely believed to have the inside track for attorney general under a Bush administration, and thus seems to be getting a running start on the next four years, should Mr. Bush win.
``There already seems to be a shift in tone from confrontation to compromise,'' says Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Even those who supported Meese's conservative policies say Thornburgh will probably be a more effective advocate for the administration.
``He's operating without the weight of a Wallach,'' says Terry Eastland, Meese's former spokesman. Meese's friendship with E. Robert Wallach, who is under indictment in New York for his lobbying activities, was the subject of a year-long investigation into Meese's affairs by an independent counsel.
For department employees who have straddled both the Meese and Thornburgh eras, perhaps the most noticeable difference is that Thornburgh has turned down the ideological volume. ``Mr. Thornburgh has a more of a law-enforcement perspective that you can't put neatly into an ideological column,'' says one Justice Department official.
As an example he cites a 1987 decision by the Supreme Court, McNally v. US. The decision severely restricted the department's ability to bring cases against state and local government officials. Prosecutors in the criminal division and US attorneys' offices wanted to immediately pass a new law that would address the court's concern. Congress was ready to do so, and asked the department for a proposal.
However, for a variety of reasons - ideological reservations that some top Justice officials had with the proposal, and general disorganization in the upper echelons of the department - it took nearly a year for the department to send its proposal to Capitol Hill. In the meantime, prosecutors complained that they were operating with one hand tied.
A proposal was finally sent to the Hill while Meese was still in office. But it was only during the last couple of weeks of August - after Thornburgh had become acting attorney general - that the hard-core negotiations with Congress took place.
``McNally is of particular interest to [Thornburgh],'' says Thomas Boyd, head of legislative affairs for the department, who points out that Thornburgh is a former prosecutor, US attorney, and head of the criminal division. He denies, however, that there was a ``shift'' into high gear when the new attorney general arrived.
Others on the Hill see it differently. ``When Thornburgh arrived, the process really picked up the pace,'' says one Senate Judiciary Committee aide. ``Thornburgh obviously wants to get things done.''
A compromise bill was introduced into the Senate on Sept. 16.
Cautious optimism on the Hill
This congressional aide and others on the Hill are cautiously optimistic about relations with the new attorney general. Over the next few weeks, Congress will see how smoothly they work together as they work on several contentious bills.
Thornburgh has shown himself to be a tough bargainer but willing to give ground, congressional sources say. They cite a compromise, finalized last week, on a Senate proposal to create an inspector general position in the Justice Department, who would serve as a watchdog for department employees. For several years, the department has fended off similar proposals. But this year, in the wake of Meese's troubles, it appeared to have unstoppable momentum.
``The attorney general's starting position was that an inspector general was not only unnecessary but unwanted,'' says Robert Ross Jr., Thornburgh's new executive assistant who served as his general counsel in Pennsylvania.
But after seeing the ``political realities,'' he says, Thornburgh worked out a compromise in which the department's existing watchdog office would investigate allegations of major wrongdoing by employees, and a new inspector general would handle audits and some other issues.
Several people, particularly the heads of three Justice agencies, were ``unhappy'' about giving any ground and asked Thornburgh to reconsider the compromise. ``But he made them understand that this compromise is better than no compromise,'' Mr. Ross says.
While external relations are taking some of the attorney general's time, it is the internal workings of the department that have received the most attention so far. Within days of his arrival, Thornburgh brought in four aides from his days as governor of Pennsylvania to look at how the department was being run. The aides - two of whom are now Justice employees and two of whom will continue as independent consultants - recently gave their assessments to the attorney general.
According to David Runkel, one of the consultants, some changes have already taken place, and some are in the works. For example, the attorney general's office has been streamlined, in line with Thornburgh's penchant for cutting and reallocating staff. (He reduced the Pennsylvania state payroll by 16,000.)
More substantive changes will likely stem from the department's serious budget squeeze over the next two years.
To analyze how the department is spending its money, Thornburgh brought in his former budget secretary, Robert Bittenbender, in August. His report made no concrete recommendations, Mr. Bittenbender says. But given the attorney general's history as a former US attorney and head of the criminal division, he and others believe Thornburgh will shift around resources wherever possible to shrink the administrative offices and beef up the criminal prosecutors and investigators - specifically, the criminal division and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
That could spell trouble for some of Meese's pet projects, including the obscenity unit. The obscenity unit puts on training conferences for prosecutors around the country to show them how to bring pornography and obscenity cases. Bittenbender says that travel and training conferences will be among the first targets of cutbacks, but adds that the fate of the unit was not mentioned in his preliminary review.
With only four months left in the administration, the new team cannot make wholesale changes in policy. But with Bush leading in the polls and Thornburgh an obvious favorite for the top law-enforcement spot, the attorney general is under tight surveillance for hints of things to come. As one Senate Judiciary staff member puts it, ``We are monitoring him very, very closely.''