Attorneys Case Is Least of Gonzales' Lapses

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been involved in some fundamentally troubling things during his time at the White House and the Justice Department. But the firing of U.S. attorneys is the least of them.

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DANIEL SCHORR: About the controversy over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, one is tempted to say don't sweat this small stuff.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is having to back off from his earlier assertion that he was not involved in discussions about the attorney discharges. In addition to chief of staff Kyle Sampson, who has resigned and will testify on Capitol Hill tomorrow, another aide, Monica Goodling, is seeking the protection of the Fifth Amendment with its safeguard against self-incrimination. The Senate Judiciary Committee is moving to subpoena White House figures who are citing executive privilege, and that may end up in the courts.

But the Attorneygate flap, as it may soon come to be called, should not cause us to forget some of the larger issues that Gonzales has been involved in as attorney general and as White House counsel before then. In 2002, he wrote a memo for President Bush suggesting that the war on terrorism rendered quaint some of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions on rights of prisoners. Later that year, he endorsed a Justice Department memo narrowly defining torture as interrogation that causes pain equivalent to organ failure or death.

Last January, at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he questioned whether the Constitution granted a right to habeas corpus. Gonzales has defended the NSA domestic wiretap program. And although he officially oversees the FBI, he did not intervene when the FBI was misusing so-called national security letters authorizing intelligence surveillance. FBI Director Robert Mueller has accepted responsibility for this violation of civil liberties. Gonzales has barely been heard from.

None of these issues is as sexy politically as the firing of the U.S. attorneys who have political support in their home states and their districts. So now demands for Gonzales's resignation are going up on Capitol Hill. But the nation is likely to suffer the effects of his tinkering with civil liberties long after the furor over Attorneygate has died down.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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