Gonzales Leaves the President's Power Circle

Gonzales and Bush i i

hide captionAttorney General Alberto Gonzales has been a close adviser to President Bush since the mid-1990s.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Gonzales and Bush

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been a close adviser to President Bush since the mid-1990s.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Timeline: Gonzales & Bush

Texas circle i i
Tannen Maury/AFP/Getty Images
Texas circle

Gonzales has long been a member of the inner circle that has guided President Bush's agenda. He's shown here in the Texas governor's mansion on Dec. 17, 2000, shortly after Bush was certified as president-elect. Also pictured are Condoleezza Rice, now secretary of state, and Karen Hughes, now undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

Tannen Maury/AFP/Getty Images

Alberto Gonzales has been in George Bush's inner circle since Bush's years as governor of Texas. (He is pictured above in December 2000, after Mr. Bush was certified president-elect).
Their relationship has weathered numerous controversies, such as those over the administration's policies addressing torture and the U.S. attorney firings. Read about key events in Gonzales' career and his relationship with Mr. Bush.

Role in Controversial Bush Policies

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' decision to step down comes months after critics began calling for his resignation over the firing of U.S. attorneys. But Gonzales was also a central figure in the development of controversial Bush administration policies — including those on the treatment of prisoners and on domestic surveillance. Read an overview of Gonzales' areas of influence.

Analysis: After Gonzales

The next attorney general will inherit a wounded institution marred by scandal, desertions by senior staff, extremely low morale and a host of thorny issues, ranging from immigration to the treatment of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. Read about the challenges awaiting Gonzales' successor.

Quick Profile: Gonzales

Alberto Gonzales became the nation's 80th attorney general on Feb. 3, 2005, after a four-year stint as White House counsel.

Gonzales, who just celebrated his 52nd birthday, spent much time in government posts prior to working for the Bush Administration in Washington. He served as a justice on the Supreme Court in Texas, as secretary of state in Texas, and as general counsel to Bush during Bush's time as governor of Texas.

He spent more than 10 years at the law firm Vinson & Elkins L.L.P. before moving from private practice, where he ascended to firm partner, into the public sector.
Gonzales, who grew up in Texas, earned an undergraduate degree from Rice University and a law degree from Harvard University. He is married and has three sons.

Alberto Gonzales surprised the country Monday by announcing his resignation as attorney general.

When President Bush discussed his friend's decision to step down, he essentially accused Congress of unfairly forcing Gonzales out of office, saying, "His good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."

Gonzales endured months of bipartisan criticism for his handling of a range of Justice Department controversies and his unwillingness to cooperate with Congress.

There's one line that people came to expect from Gonzales in speeches, interviews and testimony before Congress:

"Today is September 12th to the people of the Department of Justice. And tomorrow will be September 12th again. We are fighting every single day for the security and safety of Americans."

The mantra became a preamble to some of the most controversial legal arguments in the fight against terrorism, from harsh interrogation practices to domestic spying without a warrant.

Gonzales quietly helped develop many of those policies as White House counsel during President Bush's first term. And he publicly defended the policies when he took charge of the Justice Department after President Bush's re-election.

"Let me be clear that I will not support any proposal that would undermine our ability to combat terrorism effectively," Gonzales said.

Gonzales was part of President Bush's inner circle from Texas. He grew up the son of migrant workers and became the only one of eight children to attend college. After Harvard Law School and a job at a prestigious law firm, Gonzales was appointed counsel to governor Bush. He went on to serve as Texas secretary of state and later as a Justice on the state's Supreme Court.

Justice Harriet O'Neill joined the court a couple of weeks before Gonzales. She says Gonzales never talked about the obstacles that he overcame to reach his career heights.

"He doesn't advertise anything about himself," O'Neill says. "But perhaps because of that, he certainly works very hard."

O'Neill especially remembers hearing about how Gonzales earned money in high school to save for his education.

"He sold Cokes at the Rice [University] football games in the stadium, and he always talked about how he would sit in the stadium after the games and dream about going to school, going to college," O'Neill says.

By the time Gonzales arrived in Washington, then-White House Chief of Staff Andy Card described him as one of the few people who could walk in to see the president any time.

"He had the ability to be calm and listen well as people expressed opinions, sometimes with great emotion, and yet he was very objective in analyzing the situation in offering quiet counsel," Card says.

Out of that quiet counsel emerged the policy that enemy combatants could be held indefinitely without access to a lawyer, and the policy that detainees captured in Afghanistan were not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. Gonzales helped create the so-called "torture memo," which allowed harsh interrogation tactics that some people considered torture.

"All of these policies were legally suspect at best, and certainly deeply damaging to U.S. interests, both as a matter of human rights and as a matter of national security," says Princeton scholar Deborah Pearlstein, who was then director of the U.S. Law & Security Program at Human Rights First.

The administration and its supporters didn't see it that way. To Gonzales, these policies were crucial and legal. He said people captured in a war have never been entitled to the same rights as criminal suspects.

"It would be like saying Germans that were captured in World War II would have to be provided lawyers," Gonzales said. "The truth of the matter is, our rules and procedures of our criminal justice system simply do not apply in this case."

The Supreme Court disagreed with some of those early Bush administration policies. In 2004, the Justices held that Guantanamo detainees have the right to challenge their designation as enemy combatants. Two years later, they ruled that the Geneva Conventions apply to Guantanamo detainees. As for the "torture memo," the administration reversed that policy just before Gonzales went to Capitol Hill for his confirmation hearings to be attorney general. That did not save him from a blistering round of questioning.

During the hearings, Gonzales held to a line he has often repeated: "Contrary to reports, I consider the Geneva Conventions neither obsolete nor quaint."

Gonzales said the United States does not torture, but he would not discuss specific interrogation techniques. Even some republican senators gave Gonzales an earful.

"I think we've dramatically undermined the war effort by getting on a slippery slope in terms of playing cheap with the law, 'cause it's come back to bite us," South Carolina's Lindsey Graham told him. "And I think you weaken yourself as a nation and become more like your enemy instead of like who you want to be."

"We are nothing like our enemy, senator," Gonzalez replied. "While we are struggling mightily to try to find out what happened in Abu Ghraib, they are beheading people like Danny Pearl and Nick Berg."

Gonzales won confirmation by a vote of 60 to 36, becoming the first Latino to serve as attorney general. He assured the Senate that he understood the difference between the job of White House counsel and attorney general.

"I will no longer represent only the White House; I will represent the United States of America and its people. I understand the differences between the two roles," Gonzales said.

But many critics have accused Gonzales of being too close to President Bush.

"He has been a creature of President Bush and has not played that checking role that an attorney general ought to play," says Bruce Fein, who worked in the Justice Department under President Reagan and the first President Bush. "There are many areas of law where reasonable people can differ, and there's a wide swath there. But some of the positions that the attorney general has staked out in my judgment are beyond the pale."

Tasia Scolinos disagrees. She spoke with NPR before she resigned this month as the Justice Department's communications director.

"People sort of say, 'Well, because there is a pre-existing relationship there, we question his ability to be independent,' rather than really looking at his track record and looking at the decisions he makes as an independent decision-maker and making the judgment call off of that track record."

Scolinos pointed to Gonzales' accomplishments prosecuting child exploitation and corporate fraud. She said his top concern has been the threat of terrorism.

In repeated hearings before Congress, Gonzales pushed for the tools that he said were necessary to fight terrorism, such as the USA Patriot Act and the so-called "Terrorist Surveillance Program."

"Our enemy is listening, and I cannot help but wonder if they aren't smiling at the prospect that we might disarm ourselves of a key tool in the war on terror," Gonzales told Congress. "How can anyone conclude that it is not necessary and appropriate to intercept al-Qaida phone calls?"

Gonzales insisted that tapping Americans' phones without judicial oversight was not only the president's right — it was his obligation as part of his duty to keep Americans safe. The administration eventually put that program under court review, but questions persisted. By the time Gonzales resigned Monday, some lawmakers were accusing him of lying under oath about disagreements over the program.

But the scandal that started Gonzales' downfall had nothing to do with counterterrorism or national security. It was about the firing of U.S. attorneys. That does not surprise Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh.

"The national security umbrella protects someone who essentially could be making fairly weak decisions but could always say, 'I'm doing it out of necessity,'" Koh says. "Since there was no such defense on the U.S. attorneys issue, that's one in which he couldn't put up a claim that he was trying to fight the war on terror."

As the scandal unfolded, Gonzales' problems only grew. One of his top aides confessed to illegally hiring career prosecutors based on their politics. Democrats and republicans panned Gonzales' congressional appearances, calling him incompetent and untrustworthy. More than half of the Senate supported a no-confidence vote in him. Meanwhile, top officials left the Justice Department in droves. Many there described morale as being at an all-time low.

As he left Monday, Alberto Gonzales thanked President Bush and said he had lived the American dream. He gave no explanation for his departure.

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