Gonzales-Bush Loyalty a Two-Way Street

By Michael A. Fletcher and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 27, 2007 1:02 PM

After arriving in Washington with President Bush in 2001, Alberto Gonzales stood out for his unflappable nature and intense loyalty to the president. With what some called his willingness to interpret the law to fit his boss's priorities and his long political ties with Bush, Gonzales was among the president's closest confidants.

It is for good reason that Bush sometimes referred to Gonzales as " mi abogado" and kept him close by. In 1996, he helped then-Texas Gov. Bush avoid jury duty where he might have been forced to reveal a 20-year-old charge of driving while intoxicated, which later surfaced anyway. Dozens of Gonzales memos to Bush supported the governor's desire to implement the death penalty in Texas.

And as White House counsel and later as attorney general, Gonzales endorsed the creation of the controversial legal framework that guided the administration's war on terror, strongly backed by Vice President Cheney and legal conservatives but opposed by many scholars and partly overturned by the courts.

If Gonzales, who resigned as attorney general Monday, served Bush well over the years, the reverse is also true. Through Bush's sponsorship, Gonzales ascended to the top of the Texas legal establishment before becoming what some scholars call one of the most influential Hispanic officials in the history of United States government. Through more than six years in Washington, Gonzales was unable to expand his base of support beyond the president and his inner circle, and finally appeared to succumb to blunt attacks from Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers over his mishandling of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys.

"He had very much a one-to-one relationship with the president," said David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter. "That is where he started and that is where he finished."

In the end, Gonzales was a man without a constituency outside of the White House. At a Senate hearing on April 19, he endured withering criticism over his professed inability to recall key events in the attorney firings, including details of a meeting on the topic with President Bush and Karl Rove. As the controversy swirled over a period of several months, conservative figures questioned both his legal competence and his ability to manage the sprawling Justice Department.

"We have never seen evidence that he has a fine legal mind, good judgment, or managerial ability," read an editorial in the conservative National Review in late March. "Nor has his conduct at any stage of this controversy gained our confidence."

The controversy over the prosecutor firings expanded in recent months to encompass other issues, all with a focus on whether lawmakers considered Gonzales trustworthy or competent to run the Justice Department.

In one key example, Gonzales repeatedly testified that the administration's warrantless surveillance program had caused no serious disagreement among Justice Department officials. But that claim was contradicted by testimony from former deputy attorney general James B. Comey and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

Both described how Gonzales, then the White House counsel, visited former Attorney General John D. Ashcroft in the hospital in March 2004 after Justice lawyers had refused to reauthorize parts of the program to be illegal. Gonzales said Ashcroft was "lucid" during the visit, while Mueller described him as "feeble" and "barely articulate."

The mounting evidence prompted Gonzales to clarify his remarks about the program earlier this month.

These and other episodes led several congressional Democrats to call for perjury investigations of Gonzales. During a particularly hostile Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on July 24, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) told Gonzales bluntly: "I don't trust you."

Justice Department investigators disclosed in June that they were examining whether Gonzales sought to improperly influence the testimony about the prosecutor firings of a former senior aide, Monica M. Goodling, shortly before she left the Justice Department. Such an inquiry could lead to a criminal referral if there was evidence of a crime, such as obstruction of justice.

Conservatives were always wary of Gonzales because of his moderate positions on divisive social issues such as abortion and affirmative action. When Gonzales surfaced as a possible candidate for the Supreme Court in 2005, some said the president could make history and expand the reach of the Republican Party by appointing the first Hispanic to the court. But right-wing activists made it clear they would oppose him.

Liberals, meanwhile, were skeptical of Gonzales for his role in crafting legal memos that some human rights advocates say allowed the torture of terrorism suspects and created the atmosphere for abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

While Gonzales has been a trailblazer among Hispanics, he was not a national figure until the controversy over the prosecutor dismissals and enjoyed at best tepid support from most major Latino organizations.

"He is the most powerful Latino to ever serve in the Cabinet," said Fernando Guerra, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "But he doesn't have very high name recognition."

Described by friends and former colleagues as reserved and often inscrutable in meetings, Gonzales preferred to operate in private. "He liked to hear debate between different sides before coming to his own decision," said John Yoo, a former Justice Department lawyer who worked closely with Gonzales in shaping legal strategy following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "He would listen and ask just a few questions. Usually, you would go to a meeting with him and not know where he stood."

But the same qualities evidently helped forge his close relationship with Bush. "If other Bush advisers are predisposed to discretion, Gonzales was discreet squared," said Bill Minutaglio, author of "The President's Counselor," a biography of Gonzales. "As a personality he exhibits almost a mortician's calm. He is emotionally flat-lined."

The son of migrant workers who raised their eight children in a two-bedroom house in Humble, Texas, Gonzales has lived the kind of Horatio Alger story that touches Bush. Gonzales played both baseball and football in high school and worked weekends with a neighbor serving cold drinks at Rice University football games in nearby Houston. He enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed near the Artic Circle, where some of his superior officers urged him to apply to the U.S. Air Force Academy. He spent two years there before transferring to Rice.

After graduating, he went on to Harvard Law School and from there, he was recruited to Vinson & Elkins, a high-powered Houston law firm, where he specialized in large real estate deals. He became general counsel for then-Gov. Bush in 1995, before becoming Texas secretary of state and being named by Bush to the state Supreme Court in 1999.

On the court, Gonzales was a moderate. Lacking a litigation background, Gonzales had to work hard to keep up. He often arrived at work early and stayed late, reading cases that some other justices knew just from their citations, a former colleague said.

But Tom Phillips , who served as chief justice while Gonzales was on the court, said: "He more than held is own."

As White House counsel beginning in 2001, Gonzales surrounded himself with bright, highly conservative lawyers who subscribed to controversial legal theories that the constitution gives the president much more authority than the Congress or the judiciary, and international treaties are subject to "situational" adherence rather than strict compliance.

Gonzales lacked experience in many federal laws or national security matters, and many of his colleagues described him as a relatively passive participant in the sometimes acrimonious discussions that were driven -- and often won in the months after Sept. 11-- by Vice President Richard Cheney's ideologically hard-line legal counsel, David Addington.

Gonzales was "unassuming, pleasant, and quiet," said a former official who sat in interagency meetings on terrorism matters. "He never made an impression on me." The suspicion that Gonzales served as a passive or disconnected figurehead while other, more politically-minded officials decided events would later resurface among lawmakers in the controversy over the prosecutor firings.

But it was Gonzales, as White House counsel and later as Attorney General, whose name appeared at the bottom of some of the most controversial classified documents justifying harsh CIA and Defense Department treatment of U.S. detainees suspected of involvement in terrorism.

Two months after the 2001 terrorist attacks Gonzales and Addington jointly drafted an order authorizing those captured on the battlefield in the counter-terror fight to be tried by military tribunals instead of civilian courts. Under the Pentagon's initial tribunal rules, conviction would come from a two-thirds vote, appeals would be extremely limited, and all facts and legal issues would be adjudicated by the military.

The Supreme Court said last June that the tribunals were neither authorized by Congress nor required by military necessity, and it blocked them from proceeding. The court also repudiated a second Gonzales legal claim, made in a Jan. 2002 memo embraced by Bush, that the president had the authority to exempt detainees captured in Afghanistan from the human rights protections mandated by the Geneva Conventions.

Gonzales had sought to justify his position by claiming the counter-terror effort made the convention's strict limitations on detainee treatment "obsolete," a viewpoint that outraged then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard B. Myers and other senior military officials. A Defense Department panel would later conclude that Bush's decision to accept Gonzales's advice played a key role in the establishment of abusive interrogation practices at for the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

When the Supreme Court ruled this position illegal last June, it affirmed that the Geneva Conventions must be applied to detainees held by the United States anywhere. So Gonzales and his deputies last fall persuaded Congress to raise the threshold for criminal prosecutions for violating the conventions, and allow the military to introduce evidence from confessions obtained through "cruel, unusual, or inhumane" interrogations by the CIA or the military before 2005. Congress is now discussing whether to change that law.

Gonzales also was closely associated with a controversial loosening, in Aug. 2002, of the U.S. definition of what constitutes prohibited torture. The underlying legal opinion was written for the CIA by the Justice Department, but it was briefed twice to Gonzales at the White House before its final adoption. Those sessions included detailed descriptions of the suffering that detainees would experience during CIA interrogations that incorporated such methods as simulated drowning.

Under the new definition, only physically punishing acts "of an extreme nature" were considered prosecutable, and those using torture with express presidential authority or without the intent to commit harm could be considered immune from prosecution. These conclusions were later cited approvingly in a Defense Department memo authorizing "exceptional interrogations" at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where FBI agents claimed that abuses were occurring.

Most legal experts have long said that global torture prohibitions allow no exceptions. But Gonzales expressed no objections to the proposed interrogation methods and did not suggest major changes to the Justice Department memo, according to officials familiar with the briefings.

After the memo's public release sparked an outcry among human rights and legal scholars around the world, former Gonzales deputy Timothy E. Flanigan called the memo "inappropriate in a sort of sophomorish way" and Gonzales himself called its conclusions "unnecessary, overbroad discussions" of abstract legal theories. In Dec. 2004, the administration withdrew its key passages, but without explicitly addressing where the "bounds" of presidential power lie.

Gonzales -- who had repeatedly asked, "are we being forward-leaning enough" in policy discussions on interrogations -- admitted no personal error in those events. "Sometimes people do things that they shouldn't do," Gonzales said at his confirmation hearing in Jan. 2005. "People are imperfect...and so the fact that abuses occur, they're unfortunate but I'm not sure that they should be viewed as surprising."

As the attorney general, Gonzales continued to serve as a reliable advocate for White House policies. He publicly questioned the reliability of FBI accounts of abusive interrogations at Guantanamo; he also defended the practice of "extraordinary rendition," the process under which the United States sometimes transfers detainees in the war on terrorism to nations where they may undergo harsh interrogation, trial or imprisonment.

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