Civil liberties advocates and Democrats hailed Monday’s resignation by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as a major victory, while most Republicans, for whom Gonzales’ performance had increasingly become a source of embarrassment, kept their comments to a minimum.
Gonzales, a longtime crony of President George W. Bush and the first Hispanic citizen to hold a senior Cabinet post, served as one of the key backers both as White House counsel during Bush’s first term and as the country’s chief law-enforcement officer since January 2005 as one of the key promoters of the administration’s claims to sweeping executive powers after 9/11 as part of the "global war on terror."
Some analysts said his departure may result in a softening of some of the administration’s more controversial policies, including the use by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of extreme interrogation methods against terrorist suspects, such as "waterboarding," that Gonzales had long defended within the administration.
"History will remember Gonzales as the man who never said no to torture and detention policies that violated U.S. and international law," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Roth argued that Gonzales’ departure should galvanize a full-scale investigation of U.S. detention policies during his tenure both as White House counsel and attorney general.
"This removes an important protector of the more-Kafkaesque features of this administration," noted Stephen Clemons, a political insider at the New America Foundation. "Much depends now on who takes his place, but this could be a serious blow to the Cheney gang," he added in a reference to Gonzales’ backing for hard-line positions regarding prisoner detention and related issues advocated by the vice president’s office.
Indeed, Gonzales’ announcement sparked widespread speculation over his possible successor, with Democrats suggesting that they were unlikely to confirm anyone whose independence from the White House was in doubt.
"It has been a long and difficult struggle but at last, the attorney general has done the right thing and stepped down. We Democrats implore you [Bush] to work with us," said New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who has led Democratic efforts to press Gonzales to resign.
"Don’t choose the path of confrontation and throw down the gauntlet we are willing to meet you in the middle of the road. All we ask is that you choose somebody who puts the rule of law first. We’re not looking for confrontation here," he added.
"There has to be somebody with very solid professional qualifications, somebody who’s an experienced lawyer and has demonstrated the kind of judgment that the attorney general is called upon to display," added Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who became one of Gonzales’ strongest critics on Capitol Hill.
Among the major candidates mentioned to date are the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff; former deputy attorney general, Larry Thompson; former Republican Rep. Christopher Cox, who currently heads the Securities and Exchange Commission; and Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who charged Monday that Gonzales had been the victim of "absurd political theater."
Gonzales’ resignation follows the announcement just two weeks ago that Bush’s top political adviser since the 1990s, Karl Rove, was also leaving his White House post effective at the end of this month. Rove’s announcement, in turn, followed the resignation in July of another of Bush’s closest and most trusted aides, White House counselor Dan Bartlett.
Both Rove’s and Gonzales’ resignations line up with reports that White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten had told senior White House staffers that if they chose to stay in the administration past the U.S. Labor Day, which falls on Sept. 3 this year, they will be expected to remain through the end of Bush’s presidential term.
Both Rove and Gonzales were targeted by ongoing Democratic-led investigations into the sacking apparently because they were insufficiently zealous in implementing Rove’s instructions for partisan purposes of nine U.S. prosecutors late last year.
Gonzales’ testimony before Congress regarding his role in their dismissal led to charges that he had committed perjury, a charge that was echoed in a second investigation into a controversial, White House-promoted electronic eavesdropping program run by the National Security Agency (NSA).
On Monday, Bush himself defended Gonzales, a close friend of Bush since the then-Texas governor appointed him as his counsel in 1994. He charged that Gonzales’ "good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."
But rights groups said Gonzales’ departure was long overdue and should prompt more vigorous congressional investigations into the administration’s record and current practices.
"Alberto Gonzales will follow Mitchell Palmer as one of the worst attorneys general in U.S. history," said Anthony Romero, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a reference to the former President Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general who oversaw the sweeping abuses against suspected anarchists and communists during the "Red Scare" that followed World War I.
"But Gonzales’ resignation doesn’t put an end to the widespread abuse of executive powers. If anything, his departure highlights the need for increased scrutiny and accountability," Romero said.
Gonzales, whose resignation caps a "rags-to-riches" story that began in a Mexican immigrant home in Houston without running water or a telephone, attended Harvard Law School and pursued a corporate practice. As a Texas Supreme Court judge, a post to which Bush appointed him in 1999, he was considered a moderate conservative.
But as Bush’s White House counsel and later as attorney general, Gonzales sided consistently with the most hard-line elements in the administration, particularly with respect to the "war on terror."
Aside from the U.S. attorney firings and his questionable testimony regarding the NSA’s surveillance program, he is perhaps best known for characterizing the Geneva Conventions as "quaint" and "obsolete" an opinion that helped lay the legal groundwork for aggressive interrogation of terrorist suspects and their detention at the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo, Cuba.
According to recent accounts, it now appears that those opinions were based less on Gonzales’ own independent inquiry than on the work of several key administration attorneys, such as John Yoo, currently at the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, and Cheney’s counsel and chief of staff, David Addington, who were closely associated with the far-right Federalist Society.
The Society is a lawyers’ group that has argued that the executive branch of government should be accorded near absolute powers in conducting wars and that has generally been hostile to treaties and international law that constrain U.S. power abroad.
Regarding Gonzales’ departure, Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, concluded, "Until we get rid of the entire cabal, which includes Bush and Cheney, that has engaged in torture, offshore prisons such as Guantanamo, violations of the Geneva Conventions and warrantless wiretapping, there is little to celebrate in Gonzales’ resignation. Guantanamo continues, as does torture, wiretapping, secret CIA sites, rendition, and illegal trials."
(Inter Press Service)