A General Rebellion
Alberto Gonzales has big troubles, but it isn't the current flap that has made him such a controversial figure
In the summer of 2004, then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales met with one of his senior lawyers, Bryan Cunningham, who wanted to move to Colorado with his family. Gonzales remarked that Cunningham was lucky to have the chance to recharge his batteries and escape the poisonous political atmosphere of Washington, which takes such a toll on public servants and their families. "In fact," Gonzales told Cunningham wistfully, "I'd like to go back to Texas right now."
That wish could still come true. Gonzales has since become attorney general, but he's holding on to that job by a thread, struggling to extricate himself from a nasty brouhaha over how and why a handful of U.S. attorneys were dismissed last December. For veteran scandal-watchers in the capital, it's a delicious mix of partisan warfare, misstatements, finger-pointing, and embarrassing E-mails, all fueled by the fact that Democrats took over Congress last fall and are now armed with the power of the subpoena. Democrats who were hunting for big game effectively found some sitting ducks at the Justice Department. Gonzales and his top political aides did not sense the danger in the shifting winds.
But when history renders its verdict on the Gonzales legacy, the U.S. attorney firings will very likely be relegated to a mere footnote. What will fill the history books is Gonzales's deep involvement in the Bush administration's controversial war on terrorism: the decision to conduct warrantless surveillance of terrorism suspects on U.S. soil, the use of the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to house terrorism suspects, the establishment of military commissions to prosecute them, and the approval of so-called torture memos, allowing the use of aggressive interrogation techniques.
Gonzales's record also will be tarnished by his inspector general's recent revelations that the FBIan arm of the Justice Departmentrepeatedly misused a powerful new tool known as national security letters to obtain telephone, E-mail, and financial records of U.S. citizens and foreigners, often under false pretenses. Justice and FBI officials have also acknowledged that the bureau committed numerous errors in surveillance warrants that it filed in terrorism and spy cases before a secret court. "I think Gonzales's legacy will be this history of being willing to play fast and loose with civil liberties," says William Weston, dean of Kaplan University's school of legal studies.
Successful strategy? Supporters argue that Gonzales boldly did what had to be done to protect Americans in a world that had changed forever. "Since September 11, there have been no more attacks on this country," says Bush's former associate counsel Noel Francisco. "Those of us sitting here today have the luxury of believing it is still September 10. The president and the attorney general don't have that luxury."
After the 9/11 attacks, Bush, with counsel from Gonzales, laid claim to an unprecedented expansion of presidential authority, bypassing the courts, the Geneva Conventions, and even the Republican-led Congress to implement the policies they felt were necessary.
Now, on Capitol Hill, it's payback time. Democrats are using their own newfound powers to make Bush and Gonzales squirm over those prosecutor firings, even though hiring and firing U.S. attorneys is a core presidential power.