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Gonzales Helped Set the Course for Detainees

The White House said Gonzales and Addington, a former Reagan aide and Pentagon counsel, were unavailable to be interviewed for this article. But asked to comment on whether Gonzales acquiesced too easily on legal policies pushed by others, spokesman Brian Besanceney responded that Gonzales had "served with distinction and with the highest professional standards as a lawyer" in private practice, state government and the White House, and he "will continue to do so as attorney general."

A Success Story

Bush has told people that he was attracted by Gonzales's rags-to-riches life story. A Texas native and the son of Mexican immigrants, Gonzales served for two years in the Air Force before graduating from Rice University and Harvard Law School. He met Bush during his 1994 gubernatorial campaign, while Gonzales was a partner at the politically connected Houston law firm Vinson & Elkins.

Alberto R. Gonzales, right, sitting in with President Bush's war council at Camp David, advises the president on sensitive foreign policy and defense issues that have seldom been addressed by previous White House counsels. During his tenure, Gonzales also has worked closely with Vice President Cheney's counsel. (Eric Draper -- White House Via AP)

_____Key Documents_____
Gonzales Torture Memo to Presdient Bush (Jan. 25, 2002, PDF)
Dept. of Justice Memo on Torture to Gonzales (Jan. 22, 2002; PDF)
Dept. of Justic Memo on Torture to Gonzales (Aug. 1. 2002; PDF)
Gonzales Letter to 9/11 Commission (PDF)

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Upon election, Bush appointed him as his personal counsel, later as Texas secretary of state and eventually as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court. Within weeks of the 2000 presidential election, Bush tapped Gonzales to be his White House counsel, and Gonzales set about creating what officials there proudly described as one of the most ideologically aligned counsel's offices in years.

Bringing only one associate to Washington from Texas, Gonzales forged his staff instead from a tightknit group of Washington-based former clerks to Supreme Court or appellate judges, all of whom had worked on at least one of three touchstones of the conservative movement: the Whitewater and Monica S. Lewinsky inquiries of former president Bill Clinton, the Bush-Cheney election campaign, and the Florida vote-counting dispute.

"It was an office of like-minded" lawyers and "strong personalities," said Bradford A. Berenson, a criminal defense lawyer appointed as one of eight associate counsels in Gonzales's office. "There was not a shrinking violet in the bunch."

"Federalist Society regulars" is the way another former associate counsel, H. Christopher Bartolomucci, described the Gonzales staff and its ideological allies elsewhere in the government, such as Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo and Defense Department General Counsel William J. Haynes II. All were adherents to the theory that the Constitution gives the president considerably more authority than the Congress and the judiciary.

One of the clearest examples of this ambition was Gonzales's long-running and ultimately futile battle with the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Gonzales's office, acting as the liaison between the White House and the 10-member bipartisan panel, repeatedly resisted commission demands for access to presidential documents and officials such as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, prompting angry and public disputes.

Gonzales is "a good lawyer and a nice guy, and maybe he was a decent judge for a year, but he didn't bring a lot of political judgment or strategic judgment to their dealings with the commission," a senior commission official said. "He hurt the White House politically by antagonizing the commissioners . . . and all of it for no good reason. In the end, the stuff all came out."

Each morning, Gonzales convened round tables at which his staff -- as well as Addington -- related their legal conundrums. Gonzales was "not a domineering personality . . . and he gave us a chance to speak our minds," said Helgi C. Walker, a former clerk for Clarence Thomas who was an associate counsel from 2001 to 2003.

"There was often a lively debate, but at the end it was not clear where Gonzales was," another former colleague said. A second former colleague recalls that in interagency meetings, Gonzales sat in the back and was "unassuming, pleasant and quiet." So discreet was Gonzales about his opinions that one official who worked closely with him for a year said "he never made an impression on me."

But Berenson says Gonzales was hardly pushed around by officials who thought they had a monopoly on wisdom. "I didn't have the sense that he was whipping his horses or that they were dragging him along behind them," he said, adding that Gonzales was "neither the tool of an aggressive staff nor the quarterback of a reluctant team."

Current and former White House officials interviewed for this article listed only a few episodes in which Gonzales forcefully pressed a position at odds with ideological conservatives. None was in the terrorism field.

Walker said she is aware of criticism that Gonzales "should have been saying 'I believe this or that' " about some of the provocative issues presented to him. "He did not see his job as being about him" but about advocating Bush's interests, she explained. "The judge is not consumed with his own importance, unlike some others in Washington."

Detainee Policy

Unlike many of his predecessors since the Reagan era, Gonzales lacked much experience in federal law and national security matters. So when the Pentagon worried about how to handle expected al Qaeda detainees in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks and the Oct. 7 U.S. attack on Afghanistan, Gonzales organized an interagency group to take up the matter under the State Department's war crimes adviser, Pierre-Richard Prosper.

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