White House counsel named as first Hispanic AG
WASHINGTON – President Bush on Wednesday nominated White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, who helped shape the administration’s controversial legal strategy in the war on terror, to be attorney general. He would be the first Hispanic to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
“He is a calm and steady voice in times of crisis,” Bush said, his eyes glistening with emotion as he stood next to Gonzales. “He has an unwavering principle of respect for the law.”
After complaints about civil rights abuses in the name of fighting terror, Gonzales said, “There should be no question regarding the department’s commitment to justice for every American. On this principle there can be no compromise.”
A Harvard-educated attorney whose parents were migrant workers, the soft-spoken Gonzales would succeed Attorney General John Ashcroft, one of the most powerful and polarizing Cabinet members.
“‘Just give me a chance to prove myself’ – that is a common prayer for those in my community,” said Gonzales. “Mr. President, thank you for that chance.”
Some of Ashcroft’s harshest critics welcomed his selection, while others voiced doubts.
“It’s encouraging that the president has chosen someone less polarizing,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “We will have to review his record very carefully, but I can tell you already he’s a better candidate than John Ashcroft.” Another Democrat, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, said the Senate generally allows the president to choose his own team and was likely to do so in this case.
The American Civil Liberties Union reserved judgment on Gonzales, but its executive director, Anthony Romero, said, “What we do know raises some significant doubts and trouble.”
Gonzales drew criticism after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks when he wrote a memo in which Bush claimed the right to waive anti-torture law and international treaties providing protections to prisoners of war. That position drew fire from human rights groups, who said it helped lead to the type of abuses uncovered in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
Specifically, Gonzales’ memo said the Geneva Convention that had long governed the treatment of prisoners did not apply to al-Qaida or the war in Afghanistan. The memo called some of the Geneva Convention’s provisions “quaint.”
Gonzales also defended the administration’s policy – essentially repudiated by the Supreme Court and now being fought out in lower courts – of detaining certain terrorism suspects for extended periods without access to lawyers or courts.
Bush was unapologetic about Gonzales’ role.
“His sharp intellect and sound judgment have helped shape our policies in the war on terror, policies designed to protect the security of all Americans while protecting the rights of all Americans,” the president said.
“My confidence in Al was high to begin with,” Bush said. “It has only grown with time.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, expressed confidence Gonzales would be promptly confirmed. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee’s senior Democrat, said he did not see Gonzales’ nomination as contentious.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said Gonzales’ record raised “doubts about his commitment to the rule of law. Even Secretary of State (Colin) Powell objected to Mr. Gonzales’ memorandum undermining the Geneva Conventions, which Mr. Gonzales called ‘obsolete’ and ‘quaint.”‘
Gonzales’ selection came just a day after the White House announced the resignations of Ashcroft and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a close friend of Bush. With more changes expected, White House officials said Bush intends to try to have successors in place when resignations are announced.
Bush sidestepped whether Powell would remain for a second term. “I’m proud of my secretary of state,” he told reporters after meeting with Powell earlier in the day. “He’s done a heck of a good job.”
Gonzales’ political career has flourished under Bush’s patronage over the past decade, since Bush was governor of Texas. Recruited from a Houston law firm in 1995, he served as Bush’s general counsel and secretary of state and then was named to the Texas Supreme Court before accompanying the president to Washington. “I am grateful he keeps saying yes,” Bush said. Gonzales often has been mentioned as a candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court during Bush’s presidency.
The country’s largest Hispanic advocacy group, which had criticized the administration for failing to include a Hispanic in the Cabinet since Housing Secretary Mel Martinez left, praised Bush for the selection. “We are pleased that one of the first acts since President Bush’s re-election both rectifies and marks an historic milestone for the Latino community,” the National Council of La Raza said.
But critics also raised their voices.
“Alberto Gonzales’ role in the development of policies that ultimately led to the Abu Ghraib prison scandals in Iraq is deeply troubling,” said Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way. He said senators should question Gonzales closely on these matters.
Bush advisers said two people would be naturals to succeed Gonzales as White House counsel. One is White House staff secretary Brett Kavanaugh, a lawyer who has been waiting nearly 16 months for confirmation on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Another candidate would be Harriet Miers, a deputy chief of staff who was once Bush’s personal lawyer, a Bush adviser said.