By Kevin Johnson
WASHINGTON In picking White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to succeed John Ashcroft as attorney general, President Bush set the stage for political history: If confirmed by the Senate, Gonzales, 49, would be the first Hispanic to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
But at the Justice Department, Gonzales’ replacing Ashcroft could signal something else: a dramatic change in style from a brash, hard-line conservative whose taste for publicity occasionally annoyed the White House, to a soft-spoken team player whose political views are much less clear.
In nearly four years as the president’s top lawyer, Gonzales mostly has worked behind the scenes as an aide to Bush, a fellow Texan and longtime friend.
He touted Bush anti-terrorism strategies such as the USA Patriot Act, the controversial law that gave federal authorities broader surveillance powers and that Ashcroft, 62, vehemently defended against criticism by civil libertarians.
Gonzales had more of a hand in developing some of the most provocative legal tactics in the war on terrorism. They included the military tribunal system that the administration wants to use to try foreign terrorism suspects, and the legal rationale it has used to limit the rights of suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban captives by designating them as ‘’enemy combatants’’ who can be detained indefinitely.
He also has been the administration’s point man in defending Bush’s efforts to keep more government information secret, and he had a leading role in crafting a list of conservative federal court nominees that led to a series of nasty clashes with Senate Democrats.
Gonzales became a symbol for loyalty and discretion in an administration that values those qualities more than almost anything. Before Wednesday, he was widely viewed here as a potential choice for the Supreme Court, a subject that has been getting attention because Chief Justice William Rehnquist is being treated for thyroid cancer.
But the possibility of Gonzales ascending to the high court had made some of Bush’s most conservative followers nervous. Groups such as the Family Research Council noted that as a Texas judge, Gonzales was not solidly opposed to abortion, and that as White House counsel, he was not totally against affirmative action.
In short, Gonzales is no Ashcroft, a former U.S. senator whose strict opposition to abortion, affirmative action and gun control made his Senate confirmation hearings the most contentious of Bush’s first-term Cabinet members.
Ed Meese, a U.S. attorney general under President Reagan, says he expects the confirmation process for Gonzales to be much less hostile than it was for Ashcroft, who at one point had to deny accusations that he was a bigot.
Civil liberties groups made clear Wednesday that they would not oppose Gonzales with the same urgency that they showed in their unsuccessful campaign against Ashcroft, who wound up being confirmed by the Senate 58-42.
But “there is enough in Gonzales’ record that raises serious questions,” says ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. “The Senate has to ask tough questions.”
Many of those questions are likely to focus on a draft memo Gonzales prepared in 2002 that suggested that foreign fighters captured in Afghanistan were not entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions.
The internationally recognized Geneva rules require the humane treatment of war prisoners and ban coercion during interrogations. The policy ultimately adopted by the Bush administration called for Geneva protections for Taliban fighters, but not for suspected al-Qaeda operatives.
Gonzales’ characterization of some Geneva provisions as “quaint” led Democrats in Congress, the ACLU and several human rights groups to question whether the memo set a tone for aggressive interrogations that eventually led to the abuse of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
Gonzales has said the memo was misinterpreted. But Deborah Pearlstein, director of U.S. law and security programs at Human Rights First, believes Gonzales’ stance “helped create an atmosphere of ambiguity” about the treatment of captives. “We have profound concern about his nomination.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has known Gonzales for more than a decade.
“One of the things that impresses me is that Al is very confident of who he is,” Cornyn says. “He’s not a schmoozer or a backslapper. What you see is what you get. He has no agenda or big political ambitions. I get the feeling that when President Bush finishes up and goes back to Texas, Al will, too.”
Reprinted from Hispanic Business.com, November 11, 2004.