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By JOSE DE LA ISLA
President Bush has finally announced that 14 terrorist suspects will go on trial. He has acknowledged the detainees have been in CIA hands and are now in military custody. Congress still has to authorize court procedures for the trials. This is a pivotal moment. It is a "paradigm change," a time when one conceptual way of understanding could give way to another.
Alberto Gonzales, as Bush’s legal counselor in the White House before becoming U.S. attorney general, will continue as a central character. He is without peer in putting the policies together.
Not since Robert F. Kennedy was working for his brother JFK have the White House and Justice Department driven such fundamental change. The enigmatic, secretive Gonzales will have a lasting effect on future presidencies.
Before going to the White House, Gonzales had been Gov. George W. Bush’s legal advisor, Texas’ secretary of state, and then chief justice on the state Supreme Court.
He was from the beginning a close, trusted member of the Bush team. Although Washington hands did not immediately peg him as intimately associated as Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and Harriet Miers, he was.
According to a new book by Bill Minutaglio, "The President’s Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales" (Rayo Books, 2006), he was the closest, the keeper of family secrets, and the one who understood what Bush wanted to accomplish. Minutaglio’s tome is strongest in summarizing mountains of news accounts, providing context and connecting the dots, showing how decisions were made. The account is weakest when he tries to interpret Gonzales’ Hispanic and family background. What emerges is Gonzales and Bush virtually joined at the hip.
What Karl Rove has been to Bush’s political planning, Gonzales has been to legal strategy. Before 9/11, Gonzales had assembled a group of lawyers, mainly members of the Federalist Society, in the White House’s Office of Legal Counsel. The conservative organization holds that the Constitution has a fixed and knowable meaning and they oppose interpretations that cast it as having an evolving significance.
He and his group were leaders on legal policy issues, even over the Justice Department, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell at the State Department, mostly because Gonzales had the president’s ear.
From the White House, Timothy Flanigan, Bradford Berenson and Brett Kavanaugh, among others, sought to fast-track, streamline and broaden presidential authority.
The attacks of 9/11 only accelerated that approach, called "forward leaning," to anticipate, detect, detain and prosecute suspects and those who maintained ties to or supported suspected terrorist activities.
These White House lawyers understood that in order for the United States to have the upper hand on the enemy, it needed an ability to get information and take preemptive measures.
Much of what happened next is widely known. The definition of torture was tweaked to make it not torture. The Geneva Convention was considered confining, "quaint," and ignored. Suspects have been held and transported to secret prisons, called "extraordinary rendition." Domestic wiretapping occurred without court authorization and it circumvented oversight.
The fast-tracking, streamlining, and broadening of presidential powers rolled over Congress, which granted broad authority in its resolution of Sept. 14 and the Patriot Act. Otherwise, Congress was not a full partner in granting and overseeing war powers. Now it has to decide whether to go along with the Bush administration’s proposal for trying terrorists.
Through it all, Gonzales was there, in the middle of the legal justifications for the hallmarks of this administration. He had a hand in or he could have intervened before ideas reached the president on paper. But to the legal team that worked for him, the assumption all along was Alberto Gonzales represented the direction the president wanted.
(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. He may be contacted by e-mail at joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)