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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

No matter how many people demanded his resignation, it was still a surprise when Alberto Gonzales quit. It was a surprise because he kept his most important supporter, President Bush. Even after Gonzales made his announcement, the president essentially accused Congress of unfairly forcing out the attorney general.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: His good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons.

INSKEEP: Which drew this response from Senator Patrick Leahy, a leading Democrat.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Some of the strongest criticism of Attorney General Gonzales came from Republicans in the Senate and the House because they just knew he was not doing the job he was supposed to.

MONTAGNE: Gonzales endured months of bipartisan criticism for his handling of a range of Justice Department controversies and his unwillingness to cooperate with Congress. Gonzales has been a potent force in Washington ever since he arrived from Texas with President Bush seven years ago. Even before that he was part of Mr. Bush's inner circle.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this look back on Gonzales' career.

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

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Attorney General): Today is September 12th for 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.

SHAPIRO: That 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.

Mr. GONZALES: Let me be clear that I will not support any proposal that would undermine our ability to combat terrorism effectively.

SHAPIRO: 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 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 supreme court.

Justice Harriet O'Neill joined the court just a couple of weeks before Gonzales. She says he never advertised the obstacles that he overcame to reach legal heights. She especially remembers hearing about how Gonzales earned money in high school to save for his education.

Justice HARRIET O'NEILL (State Supreme Court, Texas): He sold Cokes at the Rice 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 college.

SHAPIRO: 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.

Mr. ANDY CARD (Former White House Chief of Staff): 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 and offering quiet counsel.

SHAPIRO: 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 consider torture.

Princeton scholar Deborah Pearlstein was then director of U.S. Law and Security Program at Human Rights First.

Ms. DEBORAH PEARLSTEIN (Human Rights First): 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.

SHAPIRO: 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.

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

SHAPIRO: 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.

Mr. GONZALES: Contrary to reports, I consider the Geneva Conventions neither obsolete nor quaint.

SHAPIRO: The nominee held to a line he has often repeated. Gonzales said the United States does not torture, but he would not discuss specific interrogation techniques.

Even some Republican senators, such as South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, gave Gonzales an earful.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): I think we've dramatically undermined the war effort by playing cheap with the law, because it's come back to bite us. And I think you weaken yourself as a nation and become more like your enemy instead of like who you want to be.

Mr. GONZALES: We are nothing like our enemy, Senator. While we are struggling mightily to try to find out what happened in Abu Ghraib, they're beheading people like Danny Pearl and Nick Berg.

SHAPIRO: 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.

Mr. GONZALES: 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.

Mr. BRUCE FEIN (Attorney): He has been a creature of President Bush and has not played that checking role that an attorney general ought to play.

SHAPIRO: Bruce Fein worked in the Justice Department under President Reagan and the first President Bush.

Mr. FEIN: There are many areas of law where reasonable people can differ, and there's a wide swath there. But some of the positions the attorney general has staked out in my judgment are beyond the pale.

SHAPIRO: Many critics have accused Gonzales of being too close to President Bush. Tasia Scolinos said that's not true. She spoke with NPR before she resigned this month as the Justice Department's communications director.

Ms TASIA SCOLINOS (Former Communications Director, Justice Department): People sort of say, well, because there is a pre-existing relationship there, we question his ability to be independent rather than really looking for his explanations for the decisions that he makes as an independent decision maker and making the judgment call off of that track record.

SHAPIRO: She 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 U.S.A. Patriot Act and the so-called terrorist surveillance program.

Mr. GONZALES: 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. How can anyone conclude that it is not necessary and appropriate to intercept al-Qaida phone calls?

SHAPIRO: 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 yesterday, some lawmakers were accusing the attorney general 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.

Mr. HAROLD KOH (Yale Law School): The national security umbrella protects someone who essentially could be making fairly weak decisions but will always say I'm doing it out of necessity. 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.

SHAPIRO: 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 yesterday, Alberto Gonzales thanked President Bush and said he had lived the American dream. He gave no explanation for his departure.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: If you'd like to see a timeline tracing the role played by Alberto Gonzales in the Bush administration, go to npr.org.

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