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.
and measured in his public remarks, Gonzales is strikingly different
from his predecessor at the Justice Department, John Ashcroft, who was
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.
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
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
The NSA’s monitoring is the subject of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Monday.
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
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
“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.
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,”
Despite the criticism, the 50-year-old Gonzales is not likely to yield ground in the nationally televised hearing.
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.
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
Senators have had the chance before to question Gonzales’ expansive view on the exercise of presidential power.
his confirmation hearing 13 months ago, Gonzales defended
administration policies on interrogating detainees and assured
lawmakers that Bush would not violate any laws.
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.
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.
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,”
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
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.