Attorney General Reviews First Year, New Priorities

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One year ago, Alberto Gonzales became attorney general of the United States. Wednesday morning, he gave a speech to mark the occasion. Gonzales speaks with NPR about the successes of the past year and his priorities for the year ahead.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. One year ago today Alberto Gonzales became Attorney General of the United States. This morning, he gave a speech to mark the occasion. He outlined successes of the last year and priorities for the year ahead. Afterwards, he sat down with NPR's Ari Shapiro, who has this report.

ARI SHAPIRO: Alberto Gonzales's first year as Attorney General has been defined by terrorism and its ramifications. Today he said that remains his top priority.

ALBERTO GONZALES: We have no higher calling then the protection of our fellow citizens. Stopping terrorism is priority number one.

SHAPIRO: He also described high priorities for the year ahead that have nothing to do with terrorism, fighting gangs, cyber crime, illegal drugs, civil rights, and corruption. He alluded to some of the scandals of the last year and said:

GONZALES: No one is above the law, not a city councilperson, not a CEO, not a member of Congress, not an administration official.

SHAPIRO: He did not mention the president.

GONZALES: I believe he's a member of the administration. It's his administration.

SHAPIRO: Gonzales clarified his comments in an interview this afternoon.

GONZALES: No one, including the President of the United States is above the law. Of course not. And so, everyone is expected, and the president has this expectation, that we're all going to abide by the law.

SHAPIRO: Several members of Congress and the American Bar Association have lately suggested that the president may have broken the law, specifically the 1978 statute called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA, that requires a judge's permission to wire tap American's phones. Gonzales reiterated his belief that the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program compiles with the FISA statute. But he conceded:

GONZALES: This program implicates some very difficult legal questions.

SHAPIRO: Such as the balance between Article II of the Constitution, the 1978 FISA law, and Congress's authorization of the president to use military force against terrorists.

GONZALES: Lawyers are going to disagree as to the scope of each of these areas. And so the fact that you may have some disagreement about some very, very tough issues, I don't think people should be surprised at that. You're not gonna, in fact, quite the opposite, you know, I think people might be surprised if everyone totally agreed on this. I mean, these are very, very, very tough issues.

SHAPIRO: One lawyer who disagrees with the administration is Republican Senator Arlen Specter, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Specter has said he's drafting legislation that would require the administration to brief the secret FISA court on the operational details of the spying program. Gonzales said he can't comment on legislation that hasn't been drafted, but he has concerns.

GONZALES: If the program is legal one would have to wonder why do you need legislation, that's the first thing.

SHAPIRO: He also said the legislative debate could compromise sensitive details of the program. In his speech Gonzales said one of the department's top successes of the last year was terrorism prosecutions.

GONZALES: We had dozens of convictions in terrorism-related cases last year alone, including Zacarias Moussaoui for his role in a plot to fly airplanes into buildings. And Ali Al-Timimi in the Virginia jihad case.

SHAPIRO: There have also been high profile prosecutions what were not successful. A jury in Florida refused to convict Sami Al-Arian, a computer science professor who was accused of bank rolling Middle Eastern terrorists. In the year ahead, the Justice Department plans to roll out programs to fight housing discrimination, internet obscenity, and gang violence.

If what's past is prologue, though, other programs that the Justice Department is less eager to promote, such as NSA surveillance, will occupy a major part of the Attorney General's attention as well.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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