Alberto Gonzales = The man behind all the bad decisions

Date: 2004-11-10 10:00:26 PST

St. Petersburg Times
May 30, 2004
The man behind all the bad decisions
By ROBYN E. BLUMNER, Times Perspective Columnist

President Bush is not a "heads will roll" kind of leader, probably
because you have to be willing to admit mistakes happen in order to
hold someone responsible for them. 

Okay, maybe criticizing Bush will get you bounced faster than an
honest accountant at an Enron convention - just ask Paul O'Neill - but
a major-league screw-up does little to alter one's career trajectory.

George Tenet was kept in the central intelligence driver's seat even
after the failures of 9/11; Donald Rumsfeld was touted by Bush as a
"really good secretary of defense" despite the discovery of
military-run torture chambers; and Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who
famously announced that his Christian God is better than the Muslims',
may be under investigation but has kept his post.

But there is perhaps no figure who has his fingerprints on more
short-sighted, backward and counterproductive Bush administration
policies than does White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales.

The loyalist attorney from Texas, who was general counsel to Bush as
governor and was appointed by him to the Texas Supreme Court, is
reportedly a favorite adviser to the president because he can
synthesize complicated issues down to a sentence or two, fitting
neatly within the president's attention span. Since joining the
administration in 2001, Gonzales, 49, has been a guiding force in a
swath of administration decisions that have hobbled America's
commitment to the rule of law and have cost our nation goodwill and
respect around the world. But rather than giving Gonzales a shove
toward the door, the president is said to have him on a short list of
potential nominees for the first vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Here's the recipe: Generate international animus toward our nation,
produce shoddy work, dissemble in the press and who knows, you too
could one day sit on the nation's highest court.

There have been many Gonzales missteps but attention has focused
recently on a memorandum he wrote to Bush on Jan. 25, 2002, in which
he said that the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war should not
apply to al-Qaida or Taliban prisoners. Gonzales said the war on
terrorism "in my judgment renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations
on questioning of enemy prisoners."

While he raises the possible downsides, including provoking
"widespread condemnation among our allies," and potentially
undermining "U.S. military culture which emphasizes maintaining the
highest standards of conduct," Gonzales nonetheless recommends dumping
the Conventions in order to preserve "flexibility."

The memo could be titled "do as we say, not as we do." With
unexplained logic, it states that anyone who mistreats U.S. personnel
could still be charged with war crimes, yet says the Convention - the
international law from which the definition of war crimes is derived -
should not apply to the actions of the United States. This loophole
lawyering, from the man whose former law firm in Houston represented
Enron, was an invitation to torture anyone labeled an enemy combatant.
He gave legal cover to ungoverned interrogations, resulting in the
abuse reports that are now streaming out of Iraq, Afghanistan and

Joseph Onek, director of the Liberty and Security Initiative of the
Constitution Project, says it was this kind of thinking that turned
the world from supporting our invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 to
standing against us: "When you think about it, Guantanamo became a
symbol around the world for American disrespect for law." He calls
Gonzales' judgment "a disaster."

Also contributing to this environment was the presidential order,
written by Gonzales, authorizing the use of military tribunals to try
terrorist suspects. The order produced howls of protest by setting up
a proceeding so lacking in basic due process that it appeared to have
the makings of a star chamber.

In defense of the plan, Gonzales wrote an op-ed piece for the New York
Times calling the tribunals "full and fair." The column was a study in
half-truths, including the claim that anyone detained or tried by a
military commission "in the United States" would ultimately have the
protections of our civilian courts "through a habeas corpus
proceeding." In fact, the administration is holding foreign enemy
combatants outside the United States, for the sole purpose of
defeating their rights of habeas corpus. And whether the
administration can get away with this outrage is a question currently
before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gonzales has also been a fierce defender of presidential secrecy,
helping to put prior presidential records and Vice President Dick
Cheney's energy task force records out of reach. "He has been a major
advocate of virtually untrammeled presidential prerogatives," said
Elliot Mincberg, general counsel for People for the American Way, who
worries about a Gonzales nomination if Bush is re-elected.

Mincberg has good reason to worry. Gonzales is a loyal Bush soldier
whose work has shattered America's moral authority and standing in the
world. That should buy him a spot on a Bush Supreme Court, don't you

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