During his confirmation hearing two years ago, U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales was confronted with a question about his fitness for office: How could he explain his involvement in setting administration policy authorizing the use of legally questionable interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects?
Gonzales, then the White House lawyer for President Bush, admitted that he had attended meetings where the issue was discussed, and he acknowledged that his name was on a provocative memo about the outer bounds of the use of torture.
But he denied that he was responsible for setting rules that led to abuses, saying that those details were worked out by others.
Even some Republicans remarked that he seemed inexplicably detached from the decision-making process. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) observed with dismay that Gonzales was “out of the loop.”
This week, in a drama that will play out in the same congressional hearing room, Gonzales is again facing questions about being out of the loop -- in his handling of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
In public statements about the mess, Gonzales has said that he was only vaguely aware of the planned terminations, which have caused a political firestorm, and that the real work of identifying those who were to be fired was done by his chief of staff.
But he also has acknowledged attending a number of meetings about the issue, raising the question about how he could not know more about what was happening.
The distance from details, and disclaiming of responsibility, is not unusual for Gonzales based on a review of his public comments about issues inside the Justice Department.
His supporters say such instances simply show a common management technique of delegating authority. Gonzales has compared himself to the chief executive of a major corporation and says he should not be held accountable for the doings of every single employee at the sprawling, 110,000-person Justice Department.
“My experience is he did a very good job of staying on top of the many, many issues that fall within the portfolio of the White House counsel and the attorney general,” said Noel Francisco, a Washington lawyer who worked as a Gonzales deputy in the White House.
“No one can remember everything. The more you have on your plate, the more likely you won’t be up to speed on everything.”
For others, including members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that Gonzales will face Tuesday, episodes such as the U.S. attorney flap raise troubling questions about his judgment and priorities. That has left Gonzales, whom Bush once considered nominating to the Supreme Court, fighting for his job.
“If he doesn’t know what is going on with his U.S. attorneys, what is he spending his time doing?” asked one former Justice official who served during Bush’s first term, noting that the prosecutors are the arm of the department around the country.
The controversy has already led to the resignations of three top Justice officials, including his chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, and senior counsel, Monica M. Goodling, who has put lawmakers on notice that she will invoke her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination if called to testify.
Gonzales’ own handling of the fallout has struck some observers as telling. With the furor intensifying, for instance, he recently took time out to attend a community event in Texas.
“The department’s on fire. Monica’s taking the 5th. Kyle’s getting ready to testify. And the attorney general is at the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce luncheon,” said another former senior Justice official in the Bush administration, who like others requested anonymity because of the congressional investigations. “To me, that is so emblematic. The department is in total crisis, and he is off at a chamber of commerce lunch.”
A Justice Department spokesman noted that Gonzales also visited with some U.S. attorneys while in Houston in an effort to mend relations.
Some legal experts said the situation was the predictable result of presidents choosing friends or cronies as their attorneys general, who then become too attuned to the political needs of the White House rather than the law enforcement interests of the nation.
Documents have indicated that the idea for the firings originated in the White House rather than in the Justice Department.
“He has demonstrated an inability to separate his role as a custodian of the law from his role as an agent of politics, and this is only the latest example of that,” said Harold Koh, dean of the Yale Law School and a former Cabinet official in the Reagan and Clinton administrations.
There is a danger in having “someone whose major qualification is a personal relationship [with the president] becoming the attorney general,” Koh said. “You have to care about more than saying or doing what serves your client in the short term. You have to serve the rule of law in the long term.”
Questions about Gonzales’ judgment have existed since he served as legal advisor to Bush when he was governor of Texas. Among his duties was preparing summaries of clemency petitions of death-row inmates who were about to be executed.
The memos he wrote were attacked during his Senate confirmation hearings as being incomplete. One memo failed to mention that the lawyer for one condemned man had spent much of the trial asleep in the courtroom. Gonzales, asked about the omission at the hearings, said he did not remember the particular case but said it was likely that he had discussed that issue with Bush orally.
Gonzales has also left observers periodically confounded by comments he has made about other issues in which he apparently rejected bedrock principles of American law, leaving people to wonder whether he had ever deeply thought about the issues.
Debating the rights of terrorism suspects in congressional testimony in January, he declared that he did not believe that the Constitution guaranteed individuals the right to a court hearing to challenge their imprisonment, known as habeas corpus, a view contrary to even most conservative legal scholars.
Gonzales also raised eyebrows when he was asked last fall about the case of a Canadian man who was deported by American authorities in 2002 because of suspected terrorist leanings.
In September, a Canadian government commission concluded that Canada had given inaccurate information to the United States about the supposed terrorist activities of the man, Maher Arar.
The report concluded that the U.S. had wrongly deported Arar to Syria, where he was imprisoned for 10 months and tortured.
Asked about the findings at a news conference, Gonzales replied, “Well, we were not responsible for his removal to Syria.”
He added: “I am not aware that he was tortured.”
Arar in fact had been deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service when it was part of the Justice Department. (The INS was later spun off into the Homeland Security Department.) The official explanation offered later by the Justice Department was that Gonzales was trying to make a narrow point that INS was no longer part of the Justice Department.
“It was an amazing statement,” said Michael Ratner, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York advocacy group that represents Arar.
Gonzales “is like a kid who is caught with his hand in the cookie jar and says, ‘It was not me.’ ”