Kelly Sans Culotte

US Politics

Chambers of Judge Alberto Gonzales
The caballero of torture rides into the Attorney General's office.
By Kelly Cogswell

Alberto Gonzales

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FEB. 3, 2005. As a candidate for Attorney General of the United States, you can't beat Alberto Gonzales for sentimental appeal. His immediate forebears were Mexican migrant workers, his father a construction worker. His father and two uncles actually built the house in North Houston that he grew up in. The two bedrooms were shared between eight kids and their two parents.

An honor student in high school, Gonzales joined the Air Force and won an appointment to the Air Force Academy. After two years he transferred to Rice University, where he earned a degree in political science in 1979. Success there was followed with a degree from Harvard Law School.

The rest is history. In 1994, after practicing ten years, Gonzales was named general counsel to then-Texas Governor George W. Bush. In 1997, Bush named him Texas Secretary of State. In 1999, Bush appointed Gonzales to the Texas Supreme Court. When Bush was elected to his first presidency term, Gonzales became general counsel.

Despite his boss's positions, Gonzales has continued to stick to his guns supporting both abortion rights, and affirmative action.

Like most political insiders, Gonzalez indulged in questionable behavior in his rapid rise to the top. As counsel to Governor Bush, Gonzales helped him avoid jury duty when he was called in a 1996 Travis County drunk driving case. Bush's answers to the potential juror questionnaire did not disclose Bush's own 1976 misdemeanor drunk driving conviction.

As Secretary of State, when Gonzales was responsible for presenting clemency appeals to the governor in death penalty cases, he reportedly omitted important details including information about mental health, and competency, evidence of ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence. Unsurprisingly, during Bush's term, the State of Texas executed 56 prisoners — more than ever before.

Gonzales has also been accused of having connections with Enron, the energy company that collapsed in a dramatic financial scandal in 2002. In Texas, Gonzales worked for the law firm Vinson and Elkins, which represented Enron, and the company gave Gonzales $6,500 in campaign contributions for his successful 2000 re-election campaign for the Texas Supreme Court.

One could dismiss these charges as garden variety cronyism, or, in the death penalty cases, even incompetence. His unapologetic, and illegal, support of torture in the "war on terror" is another matter entirely.

The United States began using torture systematically shortly after 9/11. "Cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, is catalogued exhaustively in Red Cross reports, Major General Antonio M. Taguba's inquiry, James R. Schlesinger's Pentagon-sanctioned commission and other government and independent investigations.

Interrogators at the U.S. naval base and prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have become notorious for torture. There, against the arguments of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and military lawyers, Gonzales recommended that prisoners from the war in Afghanistan be denied the protection of the Geneva Conventions, in part by redefining them as detainees and not as prisoners at all. The Convention, he has said, is "quaint" in a post-9/11 world.

At his urging, the Department of Justice drafted a memo redefining the word "torture" to allow interrogators to do everything but produce pain "of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure." This allows a range of actions that both international law and U.S. law considered torture, like "waterboarding," the practice of stripping prisoners and submerging them until they have nearly drowned, sleep deprivation, beatings, and rape, and would certainly be considered torture if done to American soldiers.

In that August 2002 memo, Jay S. Bybee, then the head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, further declared that the President need not worry about defining torture at all.

"As commander in chief, the president has the constitutional authority to order interrogations of enemy combatants." Bybee went on to write that as commander in chief, the President could lawfully order torture, without regard to federal criminal laws or international law. Bybee also declared that any measure "that interferes with the president's direction of such core war matters as the detention and interrogation of enemy combatants would thus be unconstitutional." Apparently, even Congress can't rein in Bush. So much for checks and balances.

After a brief brouhaha, the Justice Department has rescinded the Bybee memo, which, it said, was being "revised." Nevertheless, Jay Bybee is now a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge. Soon, Alberto Gonzales may have the top legal job in the country. The implications are enormous.

In a January New York Times article "We Are All Torturer's Now," Mark Danner wrote:

"Mr. Gonzales is unfit because the slow river of litigation is certain to bring before the next attorney general a raft of torture cases that challenge the very policies that he personally helped devise and put into practice. He is unfit because, while the attorney general is charged with upholding the law, the documents show that as White House counsel, Mr. Gonzales, in the matter of torture, helped his client to concoct strategies to circumvent it. And he is unfit, finally, because he has rightly become the symbol of the United States' fateful departure from a body of settled international law and human rights practice for which the country claims to stand."

In confirmation hearings, when Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, bluntly asked Gonzales, "Did you agree with that interpretation of the torture statute back in August 2002?" Bush's candidate for Attorney General replied:

"If I may, sir, let me try to give you a quick answer, but I'd like to put a little bit of context. There obviously we were interpreting a statute that had never been reviewed in the courts... I don't recall today whether or not I was in agreement with all of the analysis, but I don't have a disagreement with the conclusions then reached by the department. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the department to tell us what the law means, Senator." (My italics).

In short, Gonzales continues to assert that the United States Justice Department can continue doing whatever it likes in the matter of enabling torture. "I don't have a disagreement with the conclusions then reached by the department."

With the confirmation of Gonzales as Attorney General, we can expect more Abu Ghraibs, and Guantanamos. Torture revelations will fuel terrorist recruitment. Members of the armed forces can kiss goodbye the protections for them in the Geneva Conventions. And, we can all bid adieu as well to that high horse we used to climb on and demand everybody else give up torture and tyranny and "disappearances" for the sake of those quaint old things, democracy and the rule of law.

Gonzales may also have a much longer shelf-life than that of his boss, who will disappear in 2009. With this appointment, Bush is likely grooming Gonzales for a future nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court — where judges serve for life.

From the Web

New York Times: We Are All Torturers Now
Washington Post: Bush Administration Documents on Interrogation, including Bybee memo
Smoking Gun: Bush's Drunk Driving Arrest
Human Rights Watch Opposes Gonzales Nomination

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