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Ethnic Roots to Show at Hearings

Times Staff Writer

The ethnic roots of Alberto R. Gonzales will be on full display today as the Senate takes up his nomination to be the first Latino attorney general.

A Democratic Latino senator will introduce Gonzalez before the Senate Judiciary Committee, while the Republican National Committee distributes statements of support from various Latino groups and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The focus on his ethnic heritage has helped to undercut opposition to the nominee among civil rights groups and Democrats concerned about his role quarterbacking administration legal positions on torture and the treatment of military detainees and terrorists.

“It is a stroke of genius on the part of President Bush,” said Nativo Vigil Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Assn., one of the Latino groups opposing Gonzales. “There is no doubt in my mind that the ethnic card is being played here, and actually to the detriment, in my mind, of the Latino community.”

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Latinos are more conflicted about the nominee than his political backers have suggested. Some groups are opposing the nomination or withholding judgment, saying that, despite the historic significance of his nomination, they have profound concerns about Gonzales’ record.

“The knee-jerk record is to applaud such high-level appointments,” said Lopez. “But he is not one of ours if he truly does not believe in respecting the rule of law.”

On Wednesday, the Republican National Committee published a list of Gonzales testimonials, including eight from a variety of Latino groups and some from members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The Republican effort to accentuate Gonzales’ ethnicity came a day after complaints from Senate Democrats that the White House was refusing to turn over documents that shed light on Gonzales’ record on torture and other issues as White House counsel.

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An RNC spokesman, Danny Diaz, said it was concerned that Democrats were “playing politics” with the nomination. “There is broad support for Judge Gonzales,” he said.

Indeed, there is no evidence to date that any Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are willing to oppose confirmation of a member of the fastest-growing minority group in the nation.

At today’s hearing, Gonzales will be formally introduced to the committee by two senators, including one of the Senate’s two new Latino members, Democrat Ken Salazar of Colorado.

Salazar “has known Judge Gonzales for some time,” a Salazar spokesman said. “Judge Gonzales personally asked Ken to introduce him. Ken and Judge Gonzales have met and have had discussions. At this point, he anticipates he will support Judge Gonzales.”

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The major unanswered questions about Gonzales involve his role in the preparation of three internal legal memos that critics say laid the groundwork for the mistreatment of military prisoners and suspected terrorists.

These include a January 2002 memo to Bush holding that the Geneva Convention does not cover enemy fighters picked up on the battlefields of Afghanistan, which some career military lawyers have said marked a serious breach from nearly half a century of carefully crafted rules of engagement in the field.

Gonzales also solicited an August 2002 legal opinion from the Justice Department that held that CIA operatives interrogating suspected terrorists could only be prosecuted for torture if the pain they caused was the equivalent of organ failure or approximated the feeling of being near death.

That memo worked its way into a third document, prepared by a Pentagon working group, which set the ground rules for interrogation of detainees at the detention center at the U.S. Naval base in Cuba.

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Gonzales’ critics say he set in motion a chain of events that sent signals to troops in the field that mistreatment of prisoners would be tolerated, resulting in the litany of reports of alleged abuse by U.S. servicemen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in recent weeks and months.

Critics say his record illustrates a troubling devotion to Bush and a failure of independent legal judgment.

He also is expected to be asked about a series of clemency petitions he prepared for Bush when he was legal advisor to the then-Texas governor in the mid-1990s that critics say gave short shrift to pleadings of death row inmates.

Gonzales has said the memos on torture and rules covering the treatment of prisoners were legal musings that were never translated into administration policy.

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In opening remarks prepared for today’s hearing, he said administration lawyers had to make difficult choices about prosecuting the war on terror after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“After the attacks of 9/11, our government had fundamental decisions to make concerning how to apply treaties and U.S. law to an enemy that does not wear a uniform, owes no allegiance to any country, is not party to any treaties, and -- most importantly -- does not fight according to the laws,” according to the testimony, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.

“As we have debated these questions, the president has made clear that he is prepared to protect and defend the United States and its citizens, and will do so vigorously, but always in a manner consistent with our nation’s values and applicable law, including our treaty obligations,” the testimony continues. “I pledge that, if I am confirmed as attorney general, I will abide by those commitments.”

Gonzales also states in the testimony that he understands that as attorney general, he would be representing the interests of U.S. citizens rather than just Bush.

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Gonzales would be the first Latino to hold what is considered one of the top four Cabinet positions -- State, Defense, Treasury and Justice. He has received endorsements from such large Latino organizations as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza.

“This is a complex issue for Latinos. We are glad that we are breaking the political ceiling but the question is whether we are a sophisticated political community that can look beyond ethnicity to look at a person’s record. There is a tension there clearly,” said Maria Blanco, a San Francisco lawyer and executive director of the Bay Area chapter of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which opposes the nominee.


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