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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he would resign Monday, after a scandal-tainted tenure marred by critics’ claims he was incompetent, hid the truth and may be guilty of perjury.
Gonzales, an architect of contentious US “war on terror” legal tactics, was also at the center of a row over firings of federal prosecutors, was the target of a barrage from Democrats and lost the confidence of many top Republicans.
He was the latest confidant to leave President George W. Bush, 17 months before the US leader himself exits the White House after his second term.
“Al Gonzales is a man of integrity, decency and principle, and I have reluctantly accepted his resignation,” Bush said in Waco, Texas after Gonzales’s sudden announcement.
“It’s sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person, like Alberto Gonzales, is impeded from doing important work, because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons.”
Democrats however went on the attack and vowed to press on with congressional probes into the conduct of the Justice Department and the White House.
“Under this attorney general and this president, the Department of Justice suffered a severe crisis of leadership that allowed our justice system to be corrupted by political influence,” said Democratic Senate Judiciary committee chairman Patrick Leahy.
“No Justice Department should be allowed to become a political arm of the White House, whether occupied by a Republican or a Democrat.”
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid said Gonzales “lacked independence, he lacked judgement.”
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer added “he seemed to put wriggling away from the truth far above telling the truth … under Alberto Gonzales, the Department of Justice was a sinking ship.”
But Republican Senator John Cornyn defended his fellow Texan.
“It’s a shame to see somebody who’s a good man chewed up and spit out by the hyper-partisan atmosphere in Washington D.C. when he did nothing, the evidence will show, wrong,” Cornyn told MSNBC.
The first Hispanic Attorney General, Gonzales, announced he would step down in a short press conference, but did not mention the partisan battles which led to his departure.
“Yesterday, I met with President Bush and informed him of my decision to conclude my government service as Attorney General of the United States effective as of September 17, 2007,” Gonzales said.
Bush said he had asked US Solicitor General Paul Clement, another top Justice Department official to serve as acting attorney general until a replacement is confirmed by the US Senate.
Several reports said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was being lined up as a possible successor to Gonzales, in what is likely to be a bruising confirmation process.
Chertoff could however face a grilling over the botched government response to Hurricane Katrina which flooded much of New Orleans and the US Gulf Coast two years ago.
Gonzales’s departure follows that of other members of Bush’s loyal kitchen cabinet of former Texas officials, after political guru Karl Rove announced his own resignation earlier this month.
While Bush’s opponents savored Gonzales’s scalp, his departure will spare the president from a political headache as he prepares to confront Congress over his Iraq strategy next month.
As White House legal counsel in Bush’s first term, Gonzales played a key role in drafting controversial legal tactics used to deal with terrorism suspects after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
He is closely linked to a warrantless wiretapping program, has been accused of redefining the word “torture” and of arguing that terror suspects held at the US base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba had no rights under the Geneva Convention.
Last month, Democrats demanded a perjury probe on Gonzales, claiming that the White House and Justice Department were mired in legal obstruction similar to that of disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon.
He was also accused by Democrats of firing federal prosecutors for political reasons which has sparked a prolonged standoff between the White House and Congress.