Jan. 5, 2005 – An array of rights organizations and even a group of retired high level officers from all four branches of the US armed forces are raising loud concerns about President Bushâ€™s attempted appointment of Alberto Gonzales to the cabinet seat of Attorney General. Activists have kept the nominee under fire since Bush named Gonzales to replace the departing John Ashcroft, but efforts urging the Senate to resist Gonzalesâ€™ appointment have spiked in the New Year, with Senate Judiciary Committee hearings scheduled for Thursday.
The main grievance cited by opponents of the Gonzales appointment is symbolized by a memo he solicited from the Justice Departmentâ€™s Office of Legal Counsel and approved in his role as White House counsel, which argued that certain acts defined as torture by international law could be permissible in the so-called "War on Terror," if used by the United States against foreign detainees deemed connected to acts of terrorism. Critics say the policy statement, delivered in August 2002, advocated clear violations of international laws prohibiting torture.
Opponents also point to Gonzalesâ€™ encouragement of the White House to suspend its Geneva Convention obligations -- provisions of which Gonzales referred to as "quaint" and "obsolete" -- and withhold "prisoner of war" status from suspected fighters captured in Afghanistan.
Of additional concern is Gonzalesâ€™ suggestion that the president possesses a "Commander-in-chief override" permitting him to supersede federal law and the US Constitution by foregoing adherence to international treaties the US has already ratified.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which does not make explicit recommendations for or against cabinet nominees, released a heavily annotated, fifteen-page report Monday, in which the venerable civil rights group called on the Senate to "conduct a thorough and rigorous confirmation process, in which Gonzales is asked to account for his actions and policy positions."
The ACLU responded quickly last week when the department Gonzales will head if appointed released a paper updating its position on torture, which Gonzales had sponsored more than two years prior.
Without fanfare, on December 30 the Justice Department posted a memorandum revising the now-infamous "Gonzales Memo." In the new document, Acting Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin broadens the administrationâ€™s definition of torture to include acts outlawed by relevant international laws. It also states that acts defined as "torture" are "abhorrent," against official US policy and in violation of presidential directives.
The ACLUâ€™s executive director, Anthony Romero, said the release "shouldn't let Attorney General-Nominee Alberto Gonzales off the hook for answering the tough questions from the Senate during his forthcoming confirmation hearings" and admonished the Justice Department for taking "more than two years to formally revise and rescind [the August 2002] memorandum."
Romero added: "In that time, hundreds of detainees have suffered abuse and torture because of the clear absence of a legal and policy framework that protected human rights. Mr. Gonzales bears much of the responsibility for creating the climate of confusion and legal framework that led to the torture and abuse."
The ACLUâ€™s criticism of the new memorandum falls short of pointing out that it still does not mention or forbid most of the abusive acts that numerous critics, including the ACLU itself, have cited as inexcusable, some of which are widely considered torture. Not included in the new document are sexual abuse, sensory deprivation and overstimulation, humiliation, religious degradation, or any other tactics that could lead to "prolonged mental suffering" -- criteria defined by international law as constituting torture in at least some circumstances.
The revised policy does not argue, like the Gonzales Memo did, that torture is acceptable; but it appears to serve the same purpose by narrowly defining torture, admonishing only acts within that strict proscription, and even providing possible defenses that could be argued by US personnel accused of committing torture.
While it is not obvious that the new document will help Gonzales survive the Senate confirmation process, there can be no doubt that some of his critics hope he does not. One of the most vocal opponents of the Gonzales appointment is Human Rights First, a New York City-based international organization that has issued an in-depth backgrounder on Gonzales.
In its aggressive "Campaign Against Torture," Human Rights First has identified blocking Alberto Gonzalesâ€™ promotion a primary objective. The group has put out calls to action encouraging citizens to resist the appointment.
The progressive policy advocacy group People for the American Way also strenuously opposes the appointment of Gonzales, whom the group considers a "torture apologist," taking particular aim at the nomineeâ€™s well-known allegiance to President Bush. "The Attorney General must be the lawyer for the American people, not just the President," said Ralph G. Neas, the groupâ€™s president, in a press statement. "The public record makes it clear that Alberto Gonzales has far too frequently allowed his legal judgment to be driven by his close relationship with the President rather than adherence to the law or the Constitution."
Neas also accused the Bush administration of operating with an "astonishing and pervasive lack of accountability" illustrated by the "fact that [Gonzales] has been rewarded with a nomination."
Also taking aim at Gonzales this week was the Center for Constitutional Rights, which issued a statement applauding the president for encouraging racial diversity in his cabinet but concluding that "the issue at hand is not about diversity, it is about the conduct of someone who has fundamentally aided and abetted efforts by those in the White House to disregard the rule of law."
CCR, which has been at the forefront of efforts to win legal rights for the "War on Terror" detainees held by the US at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba, went so far as to conclude that Gonzalesâ€™ approval would be a "travesty," elevating one of the "architects of an illegal and immoral policy and installing him as the official who is charged with protecting our constitutional rights."
Joining the chorus of voices opposed to anointing Gonzales attorney general of the United States are a dozen retired generals and admirals, most of who served in top legal positions within the military. In an open letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the former officers implore senators to ask tough questions of Gonzales, saying he encouraged operations that "fostered greater animosity toward the United States, undermined our intelligence gathering efforts, and added to the risks facing our troops serving around the world."
One signer addressed a press conference called by Human Rights First to announce the landmark letter. Retired Brigadier General James Cullen, former Chief Judge of the US Army Court of Criminal Appeals, raised the concern that Gonzales might not understand "the difference between advocating on behalf of a clientâ€™s position" -- which is Gonzalesâ€™ current job as White House Counsel -- and "the duties that are incumbent upon the chief law enforcement officer of the nation, [who] has to apply the law in an impartial manner and hopefully without political blinders."
Collectively, the writers say the Senate must determine "whether [Gonzales] intends to adhere to the positions he adopted as White House Counsel, or chart a revised course more consistent with fulfilling our nationâ€™s complex security interests, and maintaining a military that operates within the rule of law."
They also set forth a series of five questions on which they want senators to question Gonzales. Ranging from his views on the Geneva Conventions and their provision that the Red Cross be able to visit war prisoners, to his take on treatment of "unlawful combatants" and his actual beliefs about torture.
A military historian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told the Associated Press that the letter may be the first of its kind ever written by a group of retired military officers. "I don't know of any precedent for something like this," said Richard Kohn, who specializes in military-civilian affairs.
After dismissing the letter-writers as having partisan motivations, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan on Tuesday restated President Bushâ€™s full support for his attorney general nominee. "He is someone who has done an outstanding job for the president here as White House counsel," McClellan told reporters at a press briefing, "and we know he will make a great Attorney General. And so we hope Congress will move forward quickly on that nomination."
Meanwhile, Judiciary Committee member Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), speaking with the AP, accused opponents of the Gonzales appointment of engaging in a "political insurgency" against Bush nominees.
In addition to his views on international law, critics have questioned Gonzalesâ€™ ties to multi-billion dollar corporations currently under investigation and selective prosecution by the Justice Department, which Gonzales will head if approved.
Opponents furthermore complain that as legal counsel to then-Governor George W. Bush in Texas, Gonzales intentionally hid from Bush mitigating information concerning the cases of Death Row inmates facing execution, all of whom were put to death, some despite evidence of innocence or ineffective counsel -- evidence that Bush never saw.