Gonzales Looks Back on a Year as Attorney General

It's been one year since Alberto Gonzales became attorney general. He has had to balance reining in crime and defending the White House against allegations of torture and illegal eavesdropping.

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More than one member of the Bush Administration defended himself before the press yesterday. Another was Alberto Gonzales, who became Attorney General one year ago. In that year, Gonzales has handled the fallout on everything from policies on torture to eavesdropping on Americans. And as he marked the anniversary, the Attorney General spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

A year in the life of an attorney general features tension between good news that the department wants to promote, and other news that the department would rather not. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales featured the former in his speech to an audience of Justice Department employees.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Attorney General): Now, my goal is simple, secure the opportunities of the American dream for all Americans and future generations. Keeping this charge is no small task and it will require no small effort.

SHAPIRO: He talked about reduced gun crime, crackdowns on illegal internet pharmacies, and the safety of the American people.

But on a day when old photographs emerged, showing previously unseen images of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison, the other news was present as well. Since those abuses took place, President Bush signed a bill including a prohibition against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees in American custody. The president said he'd interpret the law in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president to supervise the unitary Executive Branch.

So, I asked the attorney general, does the president signing statement mean he'll order cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees if he thinks it's necessary?

Attorney General GONZALES: I think the president already spoken on this. I think he said we're not going to authorize or engage in torture.

SHAPIRO: But what if the president distinguishes between torture, and cruel inhumane or degrading treatment?

Attorney General GONZALES: The fact that the president would say in a signing statement, you know, obviously, we're going to interpret the law consistent with my constitutional obligations, would we expect any less? Of course, we wouldn't.

SHAPIRO: The question of how much authority the president has in wartime has come up in several areas. Gonzales has spent long days on Capitol Hill talking about the president's authority to spy on Americans' phone calls without a warrant. Yesterday, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, released a statement saying, I have reason to fear this administration is engaged in an elaborate cover-up of illegality.

The Republicans chairman of the committee, Arlen Specter, has expressed similar concerns. He says he's drafting legislation that would require the administration to reveal the details of the spying program, to the secret FISA court that overseas electronic surveillance. Gonzales says he's not entirely comfortable with that proposal.

Attorney General GONZALES: Would we be worried about briefing the FISA court about the operational details of this program? We do have concerns about the number of people that have access to this kind of information.

SHAPIRO: And further...

Attorney General GONZALES: The legislative process is really the sort of the art of compromise. And it is one that inherently requires a great deal of discussion. And we're concerned that, during the legislative process, that there may be additional disclosures about the operations of this program.

SHAPIRO: Gonzales cited successful terrorism prosecutions as one of his department's accomplishments in the last year. Some prosecutors have asked whether the warrantless spying program could jeopardize future prosecution? If a judge believes the program is illegal, he could bar evidence gained through the program from court. Gonzales doesn't believe it's a problem.

Attorney General GONZALES: We don't think that prosecutions are going to be jeopardized, as a result of this program. First of all, we obviously firmly believe the program is lawful. And also, I might add, that there is case law that indicates that even though you may have information, there may be problems with the legality of it, that doesn't necessarily mean that it can't be used in a subsequent prosecution.

SHAPIRO: The Senate Judiciary Committee has called a new hearing into the spying program for the end of the month. And until that debate is resolved, it may eclipse the attorney general's other programs to fight discrimination, disrupt gangs, and break up drug rings.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

STEVE INSKEEP, host: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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