Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Speedily Gonzales

True to his word, the president has wasted no time in his intent to spend the political capital that he feels he earned on Nov 2. President Bush surprised but a few today when he announced his pick for John Ashcroft's successor as U.S. Attorney General: Alberto Gonzales.

The association between Gonzales and the president dates back to 1994. Bush, at the time governor of Texas, appointed Gonzales to a series of posts that culminated with his rise to the Texas Supreme Court in 1999. In 2001, Gonzales joined the Bush administration in Washington, where he has since acted as White House counsel, leaving a trail of controversial decisions. Who, then, is Alberto Gonzales?

While some Democrats consider him a more palatable choice than his alternatives, for his moderate positions on affirmative action and on abortion, he has raised a few eyebrows in other areas. For example, in his capacity as legal counsel for then Gov. Bush, Gonzales prepared 75 death-penalty memoranda. They displayed, in the words of Alan Berlow, a former NPR reporter with a keen interest in capital justice cases, "an extraordinarily narrow notion of clemency" (Texas Clemency Memos, July 2003.) Take the case of Terry Washington, whose death sentence was carried out at 6 p.m. on May 6, 1997. Washington was "a mentally-retarded thirty-three year-old man with the communication skills of a seven year-old." The Gonzales memo failed to mention the mental retardation, as well as the fact that Washington was one of ten children who had all been subject to physical abuse growing up. Gonzales routinely left out of his memos any extenuating circumstances that might have swayed the governor towards clemency. In a 2003 article, John Dean cites that Amnesty International had concluded that the "jurisdiction that executes more people than any other in the Western world, Texas, has turned the final safeguard of executive clemency into nothing more than an empty gesture." (White House Counsel, 2003.)

Fast forward to Gonzales's time as White House legal counsel. Remember the outcry to have Dick Cheney's energy commission meeting reports made public, in the wake of the California energy crisis? The guy who successfully argued that such White House reports were to be considered work product, therefore they could not be subpoenaed, was--you guessed it--Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales is also the author of the opinion that the president should hold the position that Geneva Conventions did not apply to prisoners captured in Iraq and Afghanistan, including those who were sent to Guantanamo, to be held indefinitely without formal charges being files and without access to legal counsel. (Many critics consider Gonzales's opinion the spark that ultimately led to prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.) Gonzales had in fact crafted his opinion so as to prevent the possibility that U.S. officials could be prosecuted for war crimes (a not entirely impossible proposition, given the mishandling of prisoners of war). If you think that this is a legitimate, if repugnant, construction of international law, consider this: Secretary of State Colin Powell strongly opposed the decision, on the grounds that it would destroy the international reputation of the U.S. and that it would put U.S. troop at even higher risk (for the retaliation that might ensue).

It won’t be long before we find out whether the choice of Gonzales will lead to more controversy and further erosion of civil rights. After four year of John Ashcroft, there is a sense that anyone, just anyone, would constitute an improvement. But this is a man that President Bush likes a great deal. Given the president’s track record in his choice of collaborators, this does not bode well. In referring to Gonzales's humble origins (he was one of seven siblings and grew up in a two bedroom house in Houston), the president has said "In many ways, Al embodies the American dream." (Ponnuru, 2001.) Let's just pray that Al's American dream does not turn out into the sequel to America's nightmare.

Berlow, A. (2003.) The Texas clemency memos. The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2003. Available at

Dean, J. W. (2003) White House counsel Alberto Gonzales's Texas execution memos: How they reflect on the president, and may affect Gonzales's Supreme Court chances. Available at

Ponnuru, R. (2001) Speedy Gonzales: Bush’s fast rising counsel. National Review Online, April 30, 2001. Available at:

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