Gonzales likes being a Bush apologist


    Attorney General Alberto Gonzales heads to Capitol Hill on Monday to
    defend the Bush administration’s warrantless eavesdropping program to
    skeptical lawmakers from both parties. It’s a job for which the
    low-key, presidential confidant has shown himself well-suited.

    Affable
    and measured in his public remarks, Gonzales is strikingly different
    from his predecessor at the Justice Department, John Ashcroft, who was
    more confrontational.

    Behind the scenes, Gonzales has played
    important roles in some of the White House’s most contentious
    decisions. Examples include authorizing aggressive interrogation
    methods that critics say are akin to torture and tapping conversations
    of people within the United States without a warrant.

    Gonzales
    acknowledges disagreement in the administration about the National
    Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program. “As with all difficult
    issues, there’s been a robust discussion and analysis with respect to
    this program,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press last
    week.

    In one instance, Gonzales, while White House counsel,
    reportedly tried to persuade Ashcroft to override objections to the
    surveillance that arose within the department in 2004 and led to the
    program’s temporary suspension. The effort, which occurred while
    Ashcroft was hospitalized, failed. Gonzales would not confirm the
    account.

    The NSA’s monitoring is the subject of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Monday.

    Democrats
    and Republicans on the committee are unhappy with the legal
    justifications they have seen so far for the program; the White House’s
    refusal to release other documents; and their exclusion from the
    limited briefings that the administration has provided to a handful of
    lawmakers.

    Some Democrats chide Gonzales for what they say is his
    unwillingness to challenge the president on the eavesdropping program
    and other matters that, in their opinion, have compromised civil
    liberties.

    “The issue is whether this Justice Department, more
    than any other, is an arm of the president, sort of like the
    president’s law firm,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who voted
    against Gonzales’ confirmation as attorney general a year ago. “Nothing
    has dispelled those doubts.”

    Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the
    Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, said of Gonzales, “Regrettably in
    my view, he has continued to act like the president’s in-house counsel.”

    Scoffing at such complaints is a Republican on the committee, Texas Sen. John Cornyn.

    “Obviously
    his job is different from that of the president. His job is to enforce
    the law, and I do believe that he has both the integrity and the
    professional ability to do whatever investigation needs to be done,”
    Cornyn said.

    Despite the criticism, the 50-year-old Gonzales is not likely to yield ground in the nationally televised hearing.

    “This
    program was not analyzed, reviewed and approved solely by me,” Gonzales
    said in the AP interview. The attorney general was seated at a
    conference table in a room adjacent to his office that was adorned with
    pictures of several predecessors, including Robert Kennedy.

    “There
    are a number of people within the administration who may not have the
    same kind of relationship I have with the president who certainly agree
    with me that the president does have the legal authority to authorize
    this electronic surveillance of the enemy in a time of war,” Gonzales
    said.

    Senators have had the chance before to question Gonzales’ expansive view on the exercise of presidential power.

    During
    his confirmation hearing 13 months ago, Gonzales defended
    administration policies on interrogating detainees and assured
    lawmakers that Bush would not violate any laws.

    In similarly
    personal terms, he has since rejected complaints that politics trumped
    policy in the lengthy lawsuit against tobacco companies and the
    department’s civil rights division’s actions in a redistricting case in
    Texas and a voter identification law in Georgia.

    “The notion that
    this president I know so well, with his record of promoting minorities,
    would tolerate a politicized civil rights division is absurd,” Gonzales
    said. “The notion that I would, as the first Hispanic-American to serve
    as attorney general, is ridiculous.”

    Former Attorney General
    William Barr, who worked for the first President Bush, said Gonzales
    has struck an appropriate balance, defending presidential exercise of
    authority while maintaining independence on prosecutorial issues.

    “You
    can’t allow any political consideration or personal relationship to
    enter into it, and I have not seen any sign the White House has any
    role in handling individual cases,” Barr said.

    Even as Gonzales
    has been a leading voice on such issues as renewing expiring provisions
    of the terrorism-fighting Patriot Act and defending the NSA program,
    federal prosecutors have forged ahead with a wide-ranging investigation
    of corrupt lobbying practices.

    That inquiry has resulted in the
    conviction of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the indictment of the
    administration’s former top contracting officer. It threatens to
    ensnare several members of Congress.

    The Patriot Act renewal has
    yet to win final congressional approval. Both the House and Senate have
    made only minor changes in the law after months of hearings and debate.

    Ted
    Ullyot, who was Gonzales’ chief of staff until October and worked with
    him at the White House, said his former boss is not troubled by
    criticism. “How he is perceived is not his focus. His focus is on
    blocking, tackling and carrying out the job of attorney general,”
    Ullyot said.

    Gonzales has scored style points with administration
    critics by inviting civil libertarians to his office, which Ashcroft
    never did. Gonzales also has removed the Ashcroft-era curtain that
    covered two partially clad Art Deco statues in the Justice Department’s
    Great Hall.

    Gonzales has a long association with Bush, who named
    Gonzales as chief counsel in 1995 when Bush was Texas governor. Two
    years later, Bush picked the Harvard-educated son of migrant farm
    workers to be Texas’ secretary of state, the state’s top elections
    official. In 1999, Bush appointed Gonzales to the state Supreme Court.

    © 2006 The Associated Press