President Bush nominated his White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, on Wednesday to be his second-term attorney general, choosing a loyal friend and defender who has been a quietly aggressive advocate for strengthening Bush’s powers as a wartime commander.
Gonzales, 49, has been a Bush confidant for nearly a decade, serving as his chief legal advisor during his first term as Texas governor, and later as a Bush-appointed justice on the Texas Supreme Court. The son of migrant workers, he would become the first Latino attorney general upon being confirmed by the Senate.
By contrast with John Ashcroft, whose resignation Bush accepted Tuesday, Gonzales is considered a social moderate, and his credentials have been questioned by the religious right. But he is also expected to continue the department’s aggressive war on terrorism.
The nomination is likely to resonate with the growing number of Latino voters who support Bush and who helped him win reelection last week. And it was an immediate relief for religious conservatives who have been alarmed by months of speculation that Bush would elevate Gonzales, who has supported abortion rights, to the U.S. Supreme Court if there were an opening.
The president introduced Gonzales in the Roosevelt Room at the White House as a crime fighter and “a steward of civil rights laws.” In brief remarks, the nominee said, “The American people expect and deserve a Department of Justice guided by the rule of law, and there should be no question regarding the department’s commitment to justice for every American.”
Although Gonzales’ confirmation is considered a near-certainty, Democrats vowed Wednesday to question Gonzales about his role in setting administration war policy and delineating narrow rights for suspected terrorists, among other issues.
“The Justice Department in the first Bush term was the least accountable Justice Department in my lifetime,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will vote on Gonzales. “We will be looking to see if Judge Gonzales intends to change that.”
The departing chairman of the judiciary panel, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), called Gonzales an excellent choice, and predicted that he would be confirmed promptly.
Some Democrats on the committee also offered praise, although it was more muted. New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer said, “We will have to review his record very carefully -- but I can tell you already, he’s a better candidate than John Ashcroft.”
As White House counsel, Gonzales helped craft legal arguments that “enemy combatants” designated by the president, including U.S. citizens, could be imprisoned for months without access to lawyers or the right to challenge their detentions in court. The Supreme Court found such restrictions unconstitutional this year.
Gonzales was also an architect of the system of military tribunals that the Defense Department is using in Cuba to prosecute suspected terrorists. Critics complained that detainees were being denied their basic rights under the Geneva Convention. The survival of the military tribunals was cast in doubt this week in a ruling by a federal judge.
And Gonzales solicited a Justice Department legal opinion in August 2002 that held that international torture laws did not protect suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters apprehended in Afghanistan. That position has been viewed by some as having laid the groundwork for the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
“We definitely think it is an inappropriate choice,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, which says Gonzales bears major responsibility for the prison scandal.
Gonzales “rejected the advice of career officers in the military, as well as in the State Department, and advised the president to place detainees in the war on terror beyond the reach of the Geneva Conventions or any other law,” Malinowski said. “He was warned that that decision would undermine the culture of respect for law within the military, and didn’t listen to that advice -- and the rest is very miserable history.”
Nonetheless, compared with Ashcroft, who became a polarizing figure in part because of his combative and often highly public defense of the administration’s war on terrorism, Bush’s choice for his new attorney general is mild-mannered and relatively noncontroversial.
Former associates said they would consider it highly unlikely that Gonzales would engage in the sort of public relations barnstorming that Ashcroft undertook in a series of speeches across the country last year to shore up public support for the terrorism-fighting USA Patriot Act.
With key parts of the law set to expire at the end of next year, the former associates predicted that the nominee’s low-key style would actually enhance the odds that the administration would secure the law’s reauthorization, and possibly some additional powers.
In addition to a critical role in waging the domestic war on terrorism, Gonzales would inherit at least two highly sensitive cases that could prove worrisome for the administration: the widening government probe of Halliburton, the energy services firm once run by Vice President Dick Cheney; and an investigation by a special prosecutor into whether a Bush administration official illegally leaked the name of a CIA operative to the media. Gonzales has been interviewed as part of the latter inquiry.
Gonzales also appears to have much more moderate views than Ashcroft on a number of social issues. One of his defining votes while a justice on the Texas Supreme Court was siding with a majority in a closely watched case to allow minors to have abortions without notifying their parents.
Many conservatives believe he played a moderating role in the development of a Bush administration position on affirmative action before the Supreme Court last year. The administration called for allowing it under narrow circumstances.
But whether he will steer major changes in the Justice Department’s direction over the next four years is far from clear. His close relationship with Bush will probably ensure a degree of cooperation between the White House and the department that did not exist under Ashcroft. Gonzales said Wednesday that he looked forward to continuing to work with his former colleagues at the White House “as we move forward to make America better, safer and stronger.”
There is debate on whether the Justice Department and White House should always be in lock step.
“There is much to be said for a Justice Department that is very much on the same page as an administration,” said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York.
“On the other hand, one often does look at certain components of the Justice Department for a degree of independent legal judgment,” he said. “Balancing those two is always going to be the issue for any attorney general.”
The close ties to Bush are one reason that conservatives said they felt reassured by the nomination and did not feel obliged to oppose it.
“We think this is a good role for him,” said Tom Minnery, vice president for public policy for Focus on the Family, an evangelical advocacy group. “He is not the strong social conservative that John Ashcroft was, but without question, Gonzales is devoted to the president and the president’s programs. We believe he will be a faithful representative.”
Some former associates downplayed substantive differences between the two men.
“As a matter of personal style, Judge Gonzales has much softer edges than Gen. Ashcroft,” said Bradford Berenson, a former associate White House counsel who worked for the nominee. “But the substance of his views, particularly as it relates to the war on terror, is not as different as one might otherwise suppose.”
Berenson called Gonzales “one of the key figures in the administration in designing the legal aspects of the war on terror.”
“He is not personally responsible for every wrinkle or nuance of that policy. But he has been a faithful executor of the president’s wishes for an aggressive legal approach,” he added.