White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales has long been seen as the quiet man in President Bush’s close-knit first-term team — a soft-spoken lawyer from Texas who rarely talked to the media and kept his personal views on policy matters to himself.
But new details about Bush’s nominee to be the nation’s next attorney general are providing a clearer picture of Gonzales’ role: as a powerful policy-maker in the White House who drove discussions and set policy on issues that have generated much debate such as U.S. interrogators’ use of torture and the detention of terrorism suspects.
The role Gonzales played in the administration’s legal policies in the war on terrorism will be the main topic at his nomination hearing today before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The 49-year-old former Texas Supreme Court justice is sure to be questioned aggressively by Democratic lawmakers, who have been critical of those policies.
The hearing is certain to rekindle the debate over whether the administration’s policies are helping to thwart future terror attacks or whether they trample on international law and standards for the treatment of enemy detainees.
While most lawmakers believe Gonzales is likely to be confirmed by the Senate, administration critics hope the hearing focuses new attention on his role in formulating anti-terror policies.
“His style may be misleading: He comes across as very soft-spoken, as a middle-manager person,” said David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University Law School, who has been critical of the administration’s anti- terror policies. “But when you look into the accounts of the policymaking in the war on terror, he is clearly one of the driving forces in favor of the most extreme positions.”
Gonzales may face the most scrutiny for his involvement in a 2002 decision to permit the expanded use of torture as an interrogation technique without fear that U.S. intelligence officials would face serious criminal penalties. A 1994 law had strictly limited the use of pain and suffering in interrogations.
In August 2002, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel wrote a memo stating that interrogations of terror suspects would be subject to criminal prosecution only in the case of physical acts of an “extreme nature.” The memo also said that if intelligence officials had the president’s approval to use torture methods and did not intend to cause injury, they would most likely be immune from prosecution.