President Bush's nominee to head the Justice Department in his second term, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, pledged today to preserve civil liberties as the nation wages war on terrorism and vowed to aggressively pursue those responsible for the abuse of U.S.-held prisoners.
Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing, Gonzales was subjected to some sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers on issues ranging from the torture of suspected terrorists to clemency petitions for death row inmates in Texas.
Attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales is sworn in for the start of his U.S. Senate confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, Thursday.
(Larry Downing - Reuters)
Gonzales Hearings: Attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales drew scorching criticism from Senate Democrats for his role in Bush administration policies on the treatment of terror suspects.
Text: Partial transcript from the nomination hearing of Alberto Gonzales for U.S. Attorney General.
Gonzales said he does not view the Geneva Conventions as either "obsolete" or "quaint" -- words that appear in a 2002 memo he wrote to Bush referring to some of the convention's provisions. He condemned the abusive and degrading treatment of prisoners held by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, saying photos of the abuse had "sickened and outraged me, and left a stain on our nation's reputation."
He also declared that "torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration," and he pledged to ensure that the United States complies with international treaties, including the Geneva Conventions.
Gonzales, 49, who was nominated by Bush to replace John D. Ashcroft as attorney general, came under persistent Democratic questioning at the hearing over administration memos that critics say created a more permissive atmosphere for torture and abuse of foreign detainees.
As the hearing began, Democratic senators complained that the White House has refused to provide additional documents on the involvement of Gonzales in decisions to allow harsh interrogations of detainees in the war on terrorism.
However, in a letter released today, David Leitch, the White House deputy counsel, told Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) that the administration has already given the Judiciary Committee all the documents it needs.
If confirmed, Gonzales, a Mexican American lawyer and trusted Bush confidant from the president's home state of Texas, would be the first Hispanic to serve as U.S. attorney general.
In his opening remarks, Gonzales pledged that if the Senate approves him, "I will no longer represent only the White House; I will represent the United States of America and its people. I understand the differences between the two roles."
He added, "Wherever we pursue justice -- from the war on terror to corporate fraud to civil rights -- we must always be faithful to the rule of law."
Gonzales stressed, "I am and will remain deeply committed to ensuring that the United States government complies with all of its legal obligations as it fights the war on terror, whether those obligations arise from domestic or international law. These obligations include, of course, honoring the Geneva Conventions whenever they apply."
Alluding to a controversy over a memo he wrote in January 2002, Gonzales said, "Contrary to reports, I consider the Geneva Conventions neither obsolete nor quaint."
In the memo, Gonzales had argued that the war on terrorism "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions," such as those on commissary privileges for prisoners, pay advances, athletic uniforms and scientific instruments.
Attempting to explain his advice, Gonzales said in his prepared remarks, "After the attacks of 9/11, our government had fundamental decisions to make concerning how to apply treaties and U.S. law to an enemy that does not wear a uniform, owes no allegiance to any country, is not a party to any treaties and, most importantly, does not fight according to the laws of war. As we have debated these questions, the president has made clear that he is prepared to protect and defend the United States and its citizens and will do so vigorously, but always in a manner consistent with our nation's values and applicable law, including our treaty obligations."
In introducing Gonzales, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) praised the native of Humble, Tex., as "a modest, self-effacing man" who rose from low-income origins and now faces a confirmation process that can be "unnecessarily partisan, even cruel."
Cornyn defended Gonzales for his advice on detainee issues as White House counsel. He said federal courts and various reports, including the report of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have backed Gonzales in saying that detainees from the al Qaeda network and the Taliban movement that formerly ruled Afghanistan were not covered by the Geneva Conventions.
"President Bush and Judge Gonzales have both unequivocally, clearly, and repeatedly rejected the use of torture. But is there anyone here today who would fail to use every legal means to collect intelligence from terrorists that can save American lives? I certainly hope not," Cornyn said.
"It disheartens me to see him held up to ridicule, distortions and outright lies for being the patriot that he is," Cornyn said of Gonzales.
Under questioning from the committee chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Gonzales said he was personally revolted by the abuse of Iraqi detainees. But he said he did not want to "provide a legal opinion" on whether the conduct of U.S. guards was criminal because he did not want to prejudge any prosecution in the case.
He said later that the "most horrific pictures" of the Abu Ghraib abuse were "not related to interrogations." Rather, he said, "this was simply people who were morally bankrupt having fun, and I condemn that."
In questioning Gonzales, Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, blasted the abuses at Abu Ghraib, saying they had put American troops and civilians at greater risk.
"The searing photographs from Abu Ghraib have made it harder to create and maintain the alliances we need to prevail," Leahy said. "Those abuses serve as recruiting posters for the terrorists."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) told Gonzales, "The issue of your commitment to the rule of law is what most concerns us."
Kennedy told the nominee that policies formulated with his input "have been used by the administration, the military and the CIA to justify torture and Geneva Convention violations by military and civilian personnel."
Responding to questions about the administration's decision not to apply the Geneva Conventions to the war against the al Qaeda terrorist network, Gonzales said that conclusion was "absolutely the right decision," because doing otherwise "would make it more difficult for our troops to win. . . ." He said applying the conventions would limit U.S. ability to elicit information from terrorist detainees and require that they be housed together, where they could share information with each other, coordinate their stories and plot attacks on guards.
In a statement calling for rejection of his nomination, a liberal group, People for the American Way, called Gonzales "a lawyer who too often allows his legal judgment to be driven by his close relationship with the president rather than adherence to the law or the Constitution."
As White House counsel, the group said, "Gonzales has been a central architect of some of the most controversial elements of the administration's war on terror." It charged that he "participated in a dramatic weakening of U.S. commitments to the Geneva Conventions and against torture" and has led Bush's effort "to pack the federal appellate courts with right-wing judges and to crusade for unprecedented Executive Branch secrecy."
The nomination also came under attack today from the human rights group, Amnesty International, which said Gonzales had refused in the hearing to disavow administration efforts to redefine torture in ways that allowed certain mistreatment, including mock drowning.
"In 2002, Alberto Gonzales participated in attempts to provide legal cover for the infliction of torture by agents of the United States, and there was nothing in his responses so far today to suggest a change of heart," said a statement issued by Alexandra Arriaga, director of government relations for Amnesty's U.S. branch.
"Judge Gonzales also failed to reverse his position that the president has the authority to lift the ban on torture," the statement added. "As a leading player who has sought to exempt U.S. interrogators from the prohibition on all ill-treatment contained in the Convention against Torture, his glib statements today offer no reassurance whatsoever."
In his current post as the president's counsel, Gonzales has provided Bush with the legal groundwork for aggressively asserting executive authority in disputes with Congress and promoting government power in the war on terrorism.
Gonzales is considered a possible candidate to become the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court if there is a vacancy during Bush's second term, which begins with his inauguration Jan. 20.
One of eight children of a construction worker, Gonzales grew up in modest circumstances outside Houston. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after high school and later attended the Air Force Academy. But he subsequently decided to become a lawyer and graduated from Rice University in Houston before going on to Harvard Law School.
After working for a Houston law firm for 13 years, Gonzales in 1995 was unexpectedly appointed by Bush, who was then governor of Texas, to be his general counsel. In that capacity, Gonzales advised Bush on dozens of death penalty cases. In 1996, he reportedly helped the governor avoid having to disclose a 1976 misdemeanor conviction for drunken driving in Maine, an offense that was not publicly revealed until late in Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.
In 1997, Bush appointed Gonzales Texas secretary of state, and two years later named him to the Texas Supreme Court. As a result of that service, he is known around the White House as "the judge." Considered one of the president's most trusted advisers, he is among the few aides who meet with Bush alone.