It didn’t take long for President Bush to squander the opportunity provided by John Ashcroft’s resignation as attorney general. Instead of replacing Ashcroft with someone of enough stature and independence to bolster the administration’s commitment to the rule of law, Bush rushed to nominate his old confidant from Texas, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales. Gonzales should face little trouble being confirmed as the nation’s first Latino attorney general, and that’s a shame. He is a terrible choice.
Social conservatives are relieved to see Gonzales take over the Justice Department, if only because his perceived lack of passion for their agenda made him a worrisome potential Supreme Court candidate in their book. At least Gonzales has that going for him. But the role he played in orchestrating the war on terror from the White House counsel’s office makes him a disastrous choice to lead the Justice Department.
Most notoriously, Gonzales wrote a memo in early 2002 arguing that suspected terrorists captured in Afghanistan were not subject to protections under the Geneva Convention. He called the convention’s particulars “quaint,” a disdain for international law that begat the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and charges of human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay.
Congress has been demanding access to all of Gonzales’ memos, but Ashcroft has predictably refused. The Senate should insist that the White House provide them, but we won’t hold our breath. Still, it’s worth considering whether someone who lacked the judgment to help his client, the president, avoid the torture scandals is temperamentally suited to be the nation’s top prosecutor. To the rest of the world, appointing Gonzales attorney general is reminiscent of Bush’s praise for Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure at the Pentagon in the middle of the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Gonzales has also fostered the administration’s culture of secrecy. For example, almost as soon as Bush entered office, Gonzales championed an executive order that altered the 1978 Presidential Records Act to severely restrict access to documents. Gonzales is a zealous proponent of the USA Patriot Act, which comes up for renewal in 2005.
Any Bush nominee, of course, is going to champion the Patriot Act, and Gonzales is likely to be approved. But he still represents the loss of a golden opportunity.