Nov. 11, 2004 – Following the resignation of Attorney General John Ashcroft, President Bush has selected the man who drafted a legal argument for disregarding international law in the so-called "war on terror" as the next head of the Justice Department. Though many consider White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales a less divisive figure than the highly unpopular Ashcroft, civil rights groups have expressed grave concerns over the nomination.
"Making Alberto Gonzales the Attorney General of the United States would be a travesty," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, in a press statement. "It would mean taking one of the legal architects of an illegal and immoral policy and installing him as the official who is charged with protecting our constitutional rights. The Gonzales memo paved the way to Abu Ghraib."
Ratner was referring to a memo authored by Gonzales at the behest of President Bush and leaked to the press early 2002, in which the White House Counsel wrote that laws prohibiting torture do not apply to "the Presidentâ€™s detention and interrogation of enemy combatants."
A later memo from Gonzalesâ€™ office puts forth the opinion that "physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" and for mental pain to amount to torture, "it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g. lasting months or even years."
The American Civil Liberties Union likewise expressed trepidation over the nomination. Though he made clear that as an organization with a "record of uncompromising non-partisanship" the ACLU had no official position on the appointment of Gonzales, Executive Director Anthony Romero called "for a full and thorough Senate confirmation process that scrutinizes Mr. Gonzales' positions on key civil liberties and human rights issues."
Romero said that "particular attention should be devoted to exploring Mr. Gonzales' proposed policies on the constitutionality of the Patriot Act, the GuantÃ¡namo Bay detentions, the designation of United States citizens as enemy combatants and reproductive rights" and that he should be queried on the 2002 memo. "His confirmation hearings should also examine in detail Mr. Gonzalesâ€™ approval of the now-disavowed Justice Department memoranda that condoned the torture and incommunicado and indefinite detention of detainees captured during the Afghanistan conflict," added Romero.
Gonzales also faces criticism from activists opposed to capital punishment. A 2003 Atlantic Monthly article reported that when Gonzales was Bushâ€™s legal counsel in Texas, he routinely failed to provide the governor with crucial details surrounding clemency petitions. The article, which relies on documents obtained by journalist Alan Berlow through the Texas Public Information Act, details several cases in which Gonzales drafted brief reports for Bush outlining the legal arguments and case histories of people about to be executed.
"A close examination of the Gonzales memoranda suggests that Governor Bush frequently approved executions based on only the most cursory briefings on the issues in dispute," wrote Berlow. "In fact, in these documents Gonzales repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence."
Most political analysts say they expect the Senate will approve Gonzales as the next Attorney General, but he is likely to face some tough questioning.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) told the Associated Press that Gonzalesâ€™ confirmation hearing "may be the only remaining forum in which to examine more fully the steps that were taken to weaken U.S. policy on torture in the period that led to the prison scandals at Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan."
Some also question Gonzalesâ€™ ties to Enron, which is under investigation by the same Justice Department Gonzales will head if confirmed. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Gonzales formerly worked for the law firm that represents the energy giant, and he accepted campaign contributions from the company when seeking election to the Texas Supreme Court in 2000.
Gonzales also received $4,000 while serving on the Court from individuals and organizations affiliated with Halliburton, which is currently under FBI scrutiny for allegedly overcharging taxpayers when providing fuel to troops in Iraq. According to Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit which tracks the influence of money and corporate power in Texas politics, campaign finance records filed with the Texas Ethics Commission include a $2,000 contribution from the Brown & Root political action committee in 1999. Kellogg Brown & Root is a Halliburton subsidiary. They also show Gonzales received $2,000 from Halliburtonâ€™s executive vice president, Lester Coleman, in late 1999 and early 2000.
The Alliance for Justice -- a national association of environmental, civil rights, mental health, women's, children's and consumer advocacy organizations -- also put out a statement on Gonzalesâ€™ nomination. "Gonzales provided the Bush administration with the legal architecture to sidestep and ignore the rule of law that, as attorney general, he will be mandated to enforce," said the organizationâ€™s president Nan Aron. Aron also criticized Gonzalesâ€™ role as White House counsel in "selecting extremist judicial nominees."
"Gonzales has consistently pushed the limits of executive privilege in order to shield the Bush administration from oversight by Congress or scrutiny by the American people," added Aron. "The position of the country's chief law enforcement officer demands an impeccable level of integrity and commitment to the rule of law that Gonzales has not proven to possess."
In spite of all the concerns surrounding Gonzalesâ€™ nomination, the nationâ€™s largest Hispanic advocacy organization hailed Bushâ€™s choice. In a statement released by the National Council of La Raza, the groupâ€™s executive director, Janet Murguia, said, "We are very encouraged by the Gonzales nomination." Calling the nomination "an historic milestone for the Latino community," Murguia pointed out that, if confirmed, Gonzales will become the first Hispanic to serve as head of one of the four major cabinet posts.