Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Monday rejected critics' charges that he allowed the Justice Department to become politicized under his watch.
Gonzales told host Michel Martin of NPR's Tell Me More that he believes history will favorably judge his tenure as attorney general.
But Gonzales, who carried out some of the Bush administration's most controversial war-on-terrorism policies, acknowledged having made mistakes.
He said he failed to properly oversee his department's push to fire nine U.S. attorneys in 2006, an effort that critics claimed was heavily influenced by the Bush White House and its political guru, Karl Rove.
"No question, I should have been more engaged in that process," Gonzales told Martin. But he also suggested that he had been a victim of decisions made by his subordinates.
"I deeply regret some of the decisions made by my staff," he said, referring directly to former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who resigned over the controversy after telling a Senate committee that the attorney firings were performance-related.
Gonzales said he had asked his chief of staff to shepherd the U.S. attorney's review process and to work with people like McNulty, a former U.S. attorney.
"If Paul McNulty makes a recommendation to me — if a recommendation includes his views — I would feel quite comfortable that those would be good recommendations coming to me" about the qualifications of the U.S. attorneys under question.
Gonzales also asserted he had "seen no evidence" that Rove or anyone at the White House tried to use the U.S. attorneys to politicize the work at Justice. A report by the inspector general had found that the department's firing policy was fundamentally flawed and that Gonzales was disengaged and had failed to properly supervise the review process.
Dealing With 'A Mean-Spirited Town'
In his wide-ranging conversation with Martin, during one of only a handful of interviews he has given since stepping down under pressure on Aug. 27, 2007, Gonzales retained his usual low-key demeanor.
But he frequently returned to what has become his recent coming-out theme: that he has been targeted by critics of the Bush administration's most controversial policies — from torture policies that violate the Geneva Conventions to secret surveillance of citizens — because of his close relationship with the president. And that Washington is a "difficult town, a mean-spirited town."
"Sometimes people identify someone to target. That's what happened to me," said Gonzales, who served as President Bush's White House counsel before becoming attorney general in 2005, replacing John Ashcroft.
"I'm not whining," he said. "It comes with the job."
Gonzales, 53, a Harvard Law School graduate, former Texas Supreme Court justice and the first Hispanic to lead the Justice Department, has become a symbol of what many have said they found troubling about the Bush administration. Critics saw Gonzales as a politically beholden public servant who carried out policies that politicized the country's law enforcement apparatus, undermined citizens' privacy rights and — with a policy that allowed the interrogation practice of controlled drowning — harmed the nation's standing in the world.
The Controversial Hospital Visit
As White House counsel in 2004, Gonzales was involved in what has become one of the most well-known stories to emerge from the annals of the Bush administration's war on terrorism. During Senate testimony in early 2007, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey said that Gonzales and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card paid a late-night hospital visit to ailing Attorney General Ashcroft to get his signature on a secret government eavesdropping program.
Comey, who objected to the policy and to approaching a very sick Ashcroft, testified that he raced to the hospital to intervene — successfully, as it turned out.
Gonzales told Martin that he had no regrets about the incident.
"Neither Andy nor I would have gone there to take advantage of somebody who was sick," Gonzales said. "We were sent there on behalf of the president of the United States."
Gonzales said he was "disappointed" that Comey did not inform the Justice Department or the White House about his plan to testify about the incident. And he was unmoved by the fact that top justice officials had threatened to resign en masse over the hospital visit.
"Lawyers often disagree about important legal issues," he said.
He provided a word of caution to Obama's attorney general nominee, Eric Holder, who last week testified that he believes that the interrogation practice of waterboarding — controlled drowning — is torture.
"One needs to be careful in making a blanket pronouncement like that," Gonzales said, suggesting that it might affect the "morale and dedication" of intelligence officials and lawyers who are attempting to make cases against terrorism suspects.
He said people he knows at the CIA have told him that agents there "no longer have any interest in doing anything controversial." And that, Gonzales asserted, means they "won't be doing what they need to be doing" to protect the country.
What now for Gonzales?
He spent Obama's inauguration day last week flying back to Texas with former President Bush — a "bittersweet" experience, he said. Earlier, he and others waiting for the president at Andrews Air Force Base applauded when they watched on television as Obama was sworn in. It was "a very proud moment," he said, "a historic moment."
Gonzales says he is writing a book, and he believes his job prospects will look up when the economy improves and when investigations into actions of his Justice Department are put to rest.
There will be no finding of wrongdoing by him, he said.
And he is loath to contemplate what went wrong for him in the nation's capital.
"I'm not sure how productive it is to lament about things that went wrong," he said. "Maybe it was inevitable." After all, he said, he was making controversial decisions during a historic period. "I take comfort in knowing I did the very best I could."
Unlike Bush, Gonzales said he felt the burden of his office because "there is so much at stake ... and you want to get it right."
Even before he tells his side of the story in a book, Gonzales has begun to re-emerge on the public stage. In fact, Gonzales, Ashcroft and Clinton administration Attorney General Janet Reno are scheduled to appear together April 20 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City as part of a speaker series called "The Minds that Move the World."
Written by Liz Halloran