WASHINGTON In taking a ceremonial oath of office as the 81st attorney general of the United States, Michael B. Mukasey made no reference at all Wednesday to the trouble he faces in assuming control of the Justice Department for the last 14 months of the Bush administration.
He instead praised his new colleagues for the "great work that each of you, and all of you, were doing before I showed up here."
President Bush, in his own remarks at the ceremony, also said nothing about turmoil at the department, instead saluting Mukasey as an "outstanding lawyer and a fine leader" and saying he followed "in the footsteps of a fine man and a fine American, Al Gonzales."
But while Mukasey may not say so publicly, he has privately told his supporters on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that he is fully aware the department lost much of its credibility, both in legal circles and with the public, during Gonzales' tenure.
Mukasey, a retired federal judge from New York, is almost certain to be asked to make critical decisions soon on some of the most important legal issues facing the Bush administration, including the government's program of eavesdropping without warrants and harsh interrogation methods used on some terrorist prisoners. It was Mukasey's unwillingness to answer some questions about those interrogation techniques that nearly derailed his nomination.
He is also likely to be quickly faced with a decision about whether to prosecute employees of Blackwater, the security contractor that protects American diplomats in Iraq, over a September shooting in Baghdad in which 17 Iraqi civilians died. Government officials briefed on an FBI investigation of the episode say 14 of the deaths were unjustified.
Even more important to his stature within the department itself, he will need to address accusations that the department's ranks and their work were politicized under Gonzales, with experienced U.S. attorneys replaced because they were insufficiently loyal to the administration and with prosecutions pursued on partisan grounds. Within hours of the swearing-in ceremony Wednesday, Mukasey met with lawyers for the Democratic governor of Puerto Rico, AnIbal Acevedo-Vila, who charges that he has been improperly singled out in a federal corruption investigation on the island.
For now, Mukasey will be forced to make important decisions without the benefit of Senate-confirmed deputies. The jobs of deputy attorney general, associate attorney general and several other top officials at the department are now filled by acting appointees, another legacy of Gonzales' troubled tenure. In his remarks Wednesday, Bush acknowledged the vacancies and said he would announce nominees today to fill several of them.
Still, if Mukasey is overwhelmed by his agenda, he gave no sign of it in the brief speech after his ceremonial swearing-in, conducted by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in the cavernous Great Hall of the department's headquarters.
"It's great to be back," said Mukasey, who first worked for the department as an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan in the 1970s.
"Much has changed since 1972, when I took the same oath I took today to serve the United States attorney's office," he said. "There are laws on the books today that did not exist when I was sworn in then, and there are problems that confront us now that did not confront us then mainly, but not entirely, involving the threat to our security from those who believe it is their religious duty to make war on us."
Mukasey, who was officially sworn in last Friday, addressed his remarks at Wednesday's ceremony to the 110,000 employees of the Justice Department, telling them that "we do law, but the result is justice, and that is why our ultimate client, the people of this country, can and do rest secure in the knowledge that our unswerving allegiance is to the law."
In his comments before the swearing-in, Bush thanked two former attorneys general for attending: John Ashcroft, Bush's first attorney general, and Richard L. Thornburgh, who served under President Ronald Reagan and then Bush's father.
But the president spent more time thanking his friend Gonzales, who did not attend the ceremony and who resigned in September after repeated calls for his departure by congressional leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike.
"Al Gonzales worked tirelessly to make this country safer and to ensure that all Americans received equal justice before the law," Bush said. "Over the years, I have witnessed his integrity, his decency and his deep dedication to the cause of justice."
Gonzales recently retained a Washington lawyer to represent him in an investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general, who is pursuing lawmakers' accusations that he made false statements under oath during congressional testimony about several issues, including his role in the eavesdropping program.