FOR many observers, the recent uproar over the failed nomination of Zoe Baird for attorney general only highlights the plight of a beleaguered United States Justice Department and the need to find a strong leader to revitalize the agency.
Designed to be the bastion of law and order, the department has been marred in recent years by scandal, battles with other government agencies, and what many critics charge has been intense politicization of the criminal justice process.
Justice Department officials interviewed in Washington and in field offices say that they are intent on doing their work, but they have been battered by a poor public image.
Outside critics are even more scathing. "The Justice Department is in shambles," says consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Mr. Nader, who is a lawyer, says the department "is demoralized and led by poor-quality leadership."
Critics charge that, although the Justice Department has expanded during the past decade - it now numbers 85,000 employees and has a budget of $11 billion - it has been relatively ineffective.
Nader and others criticize the department for focusing on drug-related and violent crimes, while ignoring tax fraud, environmental cases, and a soaring corporate- crime rate. Sheriffs and local prosecutors say that even the department's emphasis on violent crimes has been problematic - as evidenced by prison overcrowding and the high number of repeat offenders.
This week, the department's troubles have been highlighted by two scandals:
* William Sessions, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has been accused of misusing FBI resources and claiming a phony tax exemption. Mr. Sessions has vigorously defended himself, assailing Justice Department investigators and former Attorney General William Barr for trumping up charges against him.
* Justice is fighting with the Manhattan district attorney's office over the prosecution of Democratic lawyer Clark Clifford and his prot Robert Altman, both charged with receiving bribes and lying about their secret relationship with the notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). The case is now before a New York judge.
Federal, state, and congressional investigators who have looked into BCCI's vast criminal network have publicly blasted Justice as the major impediment to uncovering the biggest bank scam in history. Many investigators also have accused the department of dragging its feet in the probe of the Banco Nazionale de Lavora (BNL), the Italian bank that has been charged with helping to finance Iraq's pre-Gulf-war arms acquisitions.
Former Attorney General Barr, who has just left his post, defended his department's record in investigating both BCCI and BNL. But critics inside and outside the department have said Justice has been unwilling to expose the Bush administration's possible role in helping to build Iraq's war machine.
"It's quite a mess over there," says Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan public research group. The department's first charge, Mr. Lewis says, is "to dispose of leftover scandals," such as BCCI and BNL.
President Clinton has vowed to reopen both cases.
The fallout from BNL, BCCI, and the Sessions affair raises a broader question: To what extent are those scandals indicative of underling problems at Justice?
Barr holds that the problem lies with Congress, not Justice.
When lawmakers disagree with Justice findings, Barr says, they call in the department's attorneys, dig into their files, and demand the appointment of independent prosecutors.
But Jack Blum, a former special investigator for a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that looked into the BCCI affair, describes Barr's old shop as something of a black hole. "Major cases have evaporated. Justice has simply swept them under the rug," Mr. Blum says, citing cases ranging from health-care fraud to money laundering to tax evasion. "If it's not scandalous, then it's due to the department's gross incompetence."
Blum says the Justice Department is "the most troubled part of government."
To correct those problems, Lewis calls for the appointment of a leader "who is above reproach." It is important, Lewis adds, that the attorney general, "who has historically been one of the closest advisers to the president," be independent enough to go after corporate or other white-collar criminals who might have White House connections.
"The [attorney general] shouldn't be someone who has a career in front of him," says John Moscow, the chief prosecutor of white-collar crimes for the Manhattan district attorney's office.
Rather than calculating risks to personal and political interests, Mr. Moscow says, the attorney general "should be ready to stomp on them."