A Window on a Man’s Morality


The Republicans’ comfortable majority in the Senate means that Alberto R. Gonzales will almost certainly be confirmed as the next attorney general. With hearings on his nomination set to start today, many Democrats think the best they can do is wound Gonzales enough with questions about his notorious torture memos to disqualify him for any future Supreme Court seat. In the end, however, they will feel pressure to support him or face retaliation from Republicans.

They should resist.

The eight Democrats and a smattering of moderate Republicans who voted for John Ashcroft four years ago probably felt the same pressure.

No one now can doubt the enormous power the attorney general wields or the lasting harm the person who holds that office can do. Gonzales may not share his predecessor’s zeal in hounding X-rated moviemakers or cancer patients who smoke marijuana, but as the president’s chief lawyer, he has been every bit as reckless.


As a leading architect of Bush’s ends-justifies-means war on terror, Gonzales pushed to justify torturing terror suspects in violation of international law, promoted military tribunals that echo Stalin’s show trials, helped write the Patriot Act (which, among other powers, gives government agents vast new snooping authority) and excused the limitless imprisonment of American citizens whom the president merely suspects of terror activity.

Three years into that war, much of Gonzales’ handiwork has been rejected by courts, damned by the world community and disavowed by the administration -- as in the Justice Department memo quietly released last week declaring that “torture is abhorrent to both American law and values and to international norms.”

Gonzales’ defenders argue that, as White House counsel, he was simply a passionate advocate for his client. But the most devoted counselor knows that, even in wartime, there are legal and moral lines this nation crosses at peril to its own citizens and those of other countries. Gonzales’ justifications opened the door to the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The mistreatment and prisoner deaths that occurred have raised fears of retaliation against captured Americans. Those concerns prompted a dozen retired generals and admirals, along with civil rights groups, to oppose Gonzales’ nomination.

Our justice system relies on an attorney general willing to defend civil liberties as ardently as he pursues criminals and terrorists. That person must be someone who respects both the power and the limits of law.

Gonzales’ record as White House counsel is not just a series of unfortunate missteps; rather, it is a troubling window into the man’s morality and his fitness to be the nation’s chief lawyer. Democratic senators will surely ask Gonzales sharp and embarrassing questions about the principles that guided his tenure in the Office of Legal Counsel. These lawmakers then ought to demonstrate that they understand the principles at stake by actually voting no.