On Jan. 25, 2002, Alberto Gonzales reaffirmed in a memo to President Bush that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners. In it, he responds to objections of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had asked Bush to reconsider that policy, saying it would be widely condemned, might prompt other countries to look for loopholes to conclude they were not bound by the treaty either, and could undermine the military's high standards of conduct.
Excerpts from Gonzales' rebuttal
• "This is a new type of warfare — one not contemplated in 1949 when Geneva was framed — and requires a new approach in our actions toward captured terrorists.
By MICHAEL HEDGES
A draft of Gonzales' opening remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee shows that the longtime legal adviser to President Bush plans to deflect criticism by facing it head-on.
"As we fight the war on terror ... we must be committed to preserving civil rights and civil liberties," he said, according to a copy of the remarks obtained by the Houston Chronicle. Gonzales vowed all his actions as the nation's chief law enforcement official would be "consistent with our nation's values and applicable law, including our treaty obligations."
The reference to international treaties appears to apply to a controversial January 2002 memo Gonzales wrote that said the war on terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions ... "
Critics are poised to charge Gonzales with creating a climate that led to shameful abuses of detainees and even endangered U.S. soldiers. That criticism is expected to dominate hearings on whether the Humble native will become the nation's first Hispanic attorney general.
The detainee policies Gonzales helped develop "have fostered greater animosity toward the United States, undermined our intelligence gathering efforts, and added to the risks facing our troops serving around the world," according to a letter signed by former Pentagon leaders issued this week, including several who campaigned for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
Barring a stunning surprise at hearings that will last at least a day, Gonzales is almost certain to win approval by a wide margin, Senate officials said. Republicans hold enough votes to pass him through the Judiciary Committee. Because there are 55 GOP senators, getting the required 51 of 100 Senate votes also appears automatic. As of late Wednesday, no Democrats had said they would vote against him.
Nonetheless, liberal groups such asMoveOn.org, which spent millions on anti-Bush ads this summer, will start an anti-Gonzales TV-ad campaign today, calling him the "legal mastermind of torture tactics."
Gonzales' supporters said the 49-year-old Texan will endure such batterings, which they say are motivated by ugly partisan politics.
"It really is out of line to bloody him up during this process as a way to continue election campaign attacks on the president," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
Republicans said Democrats are hoping to sully Gonzales' reputation in part as a prelude to an even bigger battle if he is later nominated for the Supreme Court. Gonzales has consistently been on the short list of possible Bush nominees to the high court.
Cornyn will give Gonzales an enthusiastic endorsement today when he introduces Gonzales, the son of migrant workers. They raised him and seven siblings in a house in Humble, near the airport, that lacked hot water and a telephone.
Gonzales plans to thank his late father, Pablo, and mother, Maria, at the hearing for "support and sacrifices." Joining Gonzales at the hearing will be his wife, Rebecca, three sons, his mother and brother Tony, a 20-year veteran of the Houston Police Department.
"Everybody knows that his personal story is the American dream personified," Cornyn said. "I intend to focus on his outstanding legal qualifications and experience which qualify him to be attorney general."
Gonzales has declined all requests for interviews since his nomination in November. But in remarks he'll give during testimony, he makes the point that as Bush's lawyer he was asked to giving legal opinions based on his reading of existing law.
That role will change as attorney general, he said: "I would have a far broader responsibility, to pursue justice for all the people of our great nation, to see that laws are enforced in a fair and impartial manner for all Americans."
Despite objections from some fellow Republicans, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has approved a panel of critical witnesses chosen from among those offered by Democrats.
After Gonzales answers several rounds of questions from senators, three military and civilian experts on detainee rights and torture will testify: retired Adm. John Hutson, Douglas Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, and Harold Koh, dean of Yale Law School.
Though those witnesses will come well-armed to criticize Gonzales, they may be challenged by Republicans who contend they hold radical views or are political partisans.
Hutson, for example, was a senior Clinton administration official who worked for the Kerry campaign. Johnson is on record as opposing the war in Afghanistan — which the Senate approved unanimously.
Koh, who also worked for Clinton and was said to be on Kerry's list of potential Supreme Court appointees, will directly rebut Gonzales' interpretation of international torture laws, officials said.
Civil libertarians have urged senators to scrutinize Gonzales on what rights he believes detainees retain after capture.
In a series of memos written for Bush in 2002, Gonzales said some forms of torturing Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners from Afghanistan to obtain information were not banned by law.
Although the torture issue is likely to dominate the confirmation hearing, senators will likely raise other matters such as affirmative action and racial discrimination with Gonzales while attempting to feel out how he'd react in sensitive areas as attorney general.
Gonzales had significant input in the administration's drafting of a Supreme Court brief on behalf of white students in early 2003 opposing the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies. Some legal experts said Gonzales was a moderating voice in that brief, opposing some who wanted Bush to take a stronger position against using race in any way in selecting students.
Some conservatives were not comfortable with at least one of Gonzales' decisions while on the Texas Supreme Court. Anti-abortion activists have criticized him for joining the majority in a ruling that allowed a girl to bypass a state law requiring parental notification before getting an abortion.
Gonzales has been a loyal and aggressive advocate for Bush since he served as governor's counsel in Austin. He helped Bush avoid jury duty in an alcohol-related case in 1996 — a move that allowed him to avoid disclosing a drunken-driving arrest in Maine in 1976.