In March 2002, U.S. elation at the capture of al Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaida was turning to frustration as he refused to bend to CIA interrogation. But the agency's officers, determined to wring more from Abu Zubaida through threatening interrogations, worried about being charged with violating domestic and international proscriptions on torture.
They asked for a legal review -- the first ever by the government -- of how much pain and suffering a U.S. intelligence officer could inflict on a prisoner without violating a 1994 law that imposes severe penalties, including life imprisonment and execution, on convicted torturers. The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel took up the task, and at least twice during the drafting, top administration officials were briefed on the results.
White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales chaired the meetings on this issue, which included detailed descriptions of interrogation techniques such as "waterboarding," a tactic intended to make detainees feel as if they are drowning. He raised no objections and, without consulting military and State Department experts in the laws of torture and war, approved an August 2002 memo that gave CIA interrogators the legal blessings they sought.
Gonzales, working closely with a small group of conservative legal officials at the White House, the Justice Department and the Defense Department -- and overseeing deliberations that generally excluded potential dissenters -- helped chart other legal paths in the handling and imprisonment of suspected terrorists and the applicability of international conventions to U.S. military and law enforcement activities.
His former colleagues say that throughout this period, Gonzales -- a confidant of George W. Bush's from Texas and the president's nominee to be the next attorney general -- often repeated a phrase used by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to spur tougher anti-terrorism policies: "Are we being forward-leaning enough?"
But one of the mysteries that surround Gonzales is the extent to which these new legal approaches are his own handiwork rather than the work of others, particularly Vice President Cheney's influential legal counsel, David S. Addington.
Gonzales's involvement in the crafting of the torture memo, and his work on two presidential orders on detainee policy that provoked controversy or judicial censure during Bush's first term, is expected to take center stage at Senate Judiciary Committee hearings tomorrow on Gonzales's nomination to become attorney general. The outlines of Gonzales's actions are known, but new details emerged in interviews with colleagues and other officials, some of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they were involved in confidential government policy deliberations.
On at least two of the most controversial policies endorsed by Gonzales, officials familiar with the events say the impetus for action came from Addington -- another reflection of Cheney's outsize influence with the president and the rest of the government. Addington, universally described as outspokenly conservative, interviewed candidates for appointment as Gonzales's deputy, spoke at Gonzales's morning meetings and, in at least one instance, drafted an early version of a legal memorandum circulated to other departments in Gonzales's name, several sources said.
Conceding that such ghostwriting might seem irregular, even though Gonzales was aware of it, one former White House official said it was simply "evidence of the closeness of the relationship" between the two men. But another official familiar with the administration's legal policymaking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because such deliberations are supposed to be confidential, said that Gonzales often acquiesced in policymaking by others.
This might not be the best quality for an official nominated to be attorney general, the nation's top law enforcement job, the administration official said. He added that he thinks Gonzales learned from mistakes during Bush's first term.
Supporters of Gonzales depict him as a more pragmatic successor to John D. Ashcroft, and a cautious lawyer who carefully weighs competing points of view while pressing for aggressive anti-terrorism efforts. His critics have expressed alarm at what they regard as his record of excluding dissenting points of view in the development of legal policies that fail to hold up under broader scrutiny and give short shrift to human rights.
His nomination has, in short, become another battleground for the debate over whether the administration has acted prudently to forestall another terrorist attack or overreached by legally sanctioning rights abuses.
One thing is clear: Gonzales, 49, enjoys Bush's trust. He has worked directly with the former Texas governor for more than nine years, advising him on sensitive foreign policy and defense matters that rarely -- if ever -- fell within the purview of previous White House counsels.
For example, when the Justice Department formally repudiated the legal reasoning of the August 2002 interrogation memo last week in another document that Gonzales reviewed, it was overturning a policy with consequences that Gonzales heard discussed in intimate detail -- to the point of learning what the physiological reactions of detainees might be to the suffering the CIA wanted to inflict, those involved in the deliberations said.