By Michael A. Fletcher and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
The resignation of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales ends one of President Bush's closest and longest professional relationships, one in which an unflappable son of migrant workers served the president loyally through a period of escalating controversy over the legality of U.S. policies in the fight against terrorism.
As White House counsel and later as attorney general, Gonzales, 52, approved the framework that guided the administration's anti-terrorism efforts. He supported positions that were strongly backed by Vice President Cheney and other conservatives, but they were partly overturned by the courts and assailed by many scholars and human rights advocates.
"I remain by your side," Gonzales signed his note Sunday to the man who appointed him to state office in Texas, then gave him the nation's premier legal job and made him one of the most influential Hispanic officials in the United States.
Throughout their years together, Bush stuck by Gonzales as loyally as Gonzales supported Bush's policies. "Why would I hold somebody accountable who has done nothing wrong?" Bush asked on Aug. 9. But during the more than six years in Washington in which he interpreted the law to match his boss's wishes, Gonzales did not expand his base of support beyond the president and his inner circle.
"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."
Gonzales finally succumbed to damaging publicity and withering criticism from Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers over his mishandling of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and a series of controversial remarks during congressional hearings.
In April, he repeatedly insisted that he could not recall key events in the prosecutor dismissals, including a meeting he held with the president and Bush adviser Karl Rove. In February 2006, he said no internal Justice Department disagreement had erupted over a domestic surveillance program, even though top Justice and FBI officials had judged it illegal and threatened to resign until it was altered.
Critics regarded Gonzales's statements as marks of loyalty to Bush but not the truth, and several Democrats called for perjury investigations. During a particularly hostile Senate hearing 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 of a former senior aide, Monica M. Goodling, a probe that could lead to a criminal referral if there is evidence of a crime.
As the controversy swirled, conservatives questioned both Gonzales's legal acumen 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 National Review in late March. "Nor has his conduct at any stage of this controversy gained our confidence."
Conservatives were always wary of Gonzales because of his moderate positions on social issues such as abortion and affirmative action. When he became a possible candidate for the Supreme Court in 2005, some said Bush could make history by appointing the court's first Hispanic. But right-wing activists promised to oppose him.
Described by friends and former colleagues as reserved and often inscrutable in meetings, Gonzales preferred to operate in private. "He would listen and ask just a few questions. Usually, you would go to a meeting with him and not know where he stood," said John Yoo, a former Justice Department lawyer who worked closely with Gonzales in shaping counterterrorism strategy.
But the same qualities evidently helped him forge a close relationship with Bush. "If other Bush advisers are predisposed to discretion, Gonzales was discreet squared," said Bill Minutaglio, author of a Gonzales biography.
The son of migrants who raised eight children in a two-bedroom house in Humble, Tex., Gonzales lived a Horatio Alger story. He played baseball and football in high school and worked weekends serving cold drinks at Rice University football games in nearby Houston. He enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed near the Arctic Circle, where 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 then to Vinson & Elkins, a high-powered Houston law firm, where he specialized in large real estate deals. In 1995, after Bush was elected governor, Gonzales became his general counsel. He was later appointed Texas secretary of state, and in 1999 Bush named him to the state Supreme Court.
On the court, Gonzales was a moderate. Lacking a litigation background, he often arrived at work early and stayed late, reading cases that some other justices knew just from their citations, a former colleague said.
As White House counsel beginning in 2001, Gonzales surrounded himself with bright, conservative lawyers. They subscribed to controversial legal theories, such as the belief that the Constitution gives the president much more authority than Congress or the judiciary, and contended that international treaties are subject to "situational" adherence.
Gonzales had little experience with much of federal law or national security matters. Many colleagues described him as a relatively passive participant in the sometimes acrimonious administration debates driven -- and often won, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- by 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 was a disconnected figurehead while political officials decided events would resurface among lawmakers in the controversy over the prosecutor firings.
But it was Gonzales's name that appeared at the bottom of some of the most controversial classified documents justifying harsh CIA and Defense Department treatment of U.S. detainees. These included legal memos that human rights advocates and even some senior military lawyers said had allowed torture and created the atmosphere for abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Two months after the terrorist attacks, Gonzales and Addington drafted an order authorizing trial by military tribunals instead of civilian courts for terrorism suspects captured on the battlefield. Under the Pentagon's initial rules, conviction would come by a two-thirds vote, appeals would be extremely limited, and the military would adjudicate all facts and legal issues.
The Supreme Court ruled in June 2006 that the tribunals were neither authorized by Congress nor required by military necessity, and it halted them until Congress rewrote the law. The court also repudiated Gonzales's legal claim, made in a January 2002 memo embraced by Bush, that the president had the authority to exempt detainees captured in Afghanistan from the human rights protections in the Geneva Conventions.
Gonzales had sought to justify his position by asserting that the counterterrorism effort made the conventions' detainee-treatment rules "obsolete" -- a viewpoint that outraged then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Gen. Richard B. Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A Defense Department panel later concluded that Bush's decision to accept Gonzales's advice helped provoke abusive interrogation practices in Iraq.
When the Supreme Court ruled the administration's position illegal, it affirmed that the Geneva Conventions must be applied to detainees held anywhere. So Gonzales and his deputies last fall persuaded Congress to raise the threshold for criminal prosecutions for violating the conventions, and to allow the military to introduce evidence from confessions obtained through "cruel, unusual, or inhumane" interrogations before 2005. Congress is now discussing whether to change that law.
Gonzales was also closely associated with a controversial loosening, in August 2002, of the U.S. definition of 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 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 prosecutable, and those using torture with express presidential authority or without the intent to commit harm could be immune from prosecution. These conclusions were later cited approvingly in a Defense Department memo authorizing "exceptional interrogations" at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where FBI agents alleged that abuse occurred.
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, officials familiar with the briefings said.
After the memo's release sparked an outcry, 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 theories.
In December 2004, the administration withdrew its key passages, but without addressing where the "bounds" of presidential power lie. The Pentagon subsequently banned the use of harsh interrogation methods on detainees in its custody.
As attorney general, Gonzales continued to serve as a staunch advocate for White House policies. He questioned the reliability of FBI criticism of abuse at Guantanamo and defended the practice of "extraordinary rendition," under which the United States sometimes transfers detainees to nations where they may undergo harsh interrogation, trial or imprisonment.
Gonzales -- who had repeatedly asked "Are we being forward-leaning enough?" in policy discussions on interrogations -- admitted no personal error.
"Sometimes people do things that they shouldn't do," Gonzales said in January 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."