Author of 'Torture' Memo Faces Stormy Confirmation
by a dozen retired generals and admirals, including a former chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, human rights groups are urging the
U.S. Senate to carefully scrutinize the role of White House Counsel
Alberto Gonzales in devising detention and interrogation policies
for the Bush administration's "war against terrorism" before confirming
him as attorney general.
who, if confirmed, would be the first Hispanic citizen to serve
in a top-ranking Cabinet post, has been strongly criticized by rights
groups for approving a series of memoranda that critics charge led
directly to the so-called Abu Ghraib scandal and other abuses by
the U.S. armed forces that have come to light since last April.
the most controversial memos were those that argued that the protections
accorded prisoners of war (POWs) by the 1949 Geneva Conventions
should not apply to suspected terrorists, and that national and
international laws prohibiting torture do "not apply to the president's
detention and interrogation of enemy combatants."
Gonzales has the burden of demonstrating that he can exercise independent
judgment within the rule of law," said Lisa Massimino, the Washington
director of Human Rights First (HRF), formerly the Lawyers Committee
on Human Rights. "His record so far is not encouraging."
who, because of the 55-45 majority Republicans now enjoy in the
Senate, is expected to be approved, begins his confirmation hearings
Thursday in what some of his defenders claim will be a "battle royal"
between the administration and "the Left," apparently meaning human
rights groups and some Democratic and even a few Republican lawmakers
who have expressed concerns about Gonzales' record.
stakes in this battle are high," wrote Lee Casey and David Rivkin,
associates of the Federalist Society, a right-wing lawyers' group
whose members dominate the upper reaches of the Bush administration,
particularly the Justice Department, the Pentagon, and Vice President
Dick Cheney's office, as well as the White House itself.
issue may be nothing less than the future of American sovereignty,"
they argued in a National Review article last week in a reference
to the Society's views that the U.S. should not be bound by provisions
of international law that it has not expressly ratified.
whose rags-to-riches story and Hispanic ancestry make him a particularly
appealing nominee – especially for Democrats worried about recent
Republican inroads among Latino voters – grew up in Houston, Texas,
where he was the second of eight children in a house that lacked
both hot water and a telephone.
those handicaps, he graduated from Harvard Law School and was hired
by Texas' most powerful law firm. After Bush was elected Texas governor
in 1994, he appointed Gonzales as his general counsel, then secretary
of state, and finally, in 1999, to the Texas Supreme Court, before
taking him to Washington as White House counsel where he dispensed
legal advice to the president and his top aides.
a judge, Gonzales earned a reputation as a moderate conservative
who was willing to apply the law, on abortion, for example, regardless
of his personal political views. While considered much less politically
extreme than John Ashcroft, Bush's first attorney general, he is
also seen as absolutely loyal to the president.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced Gonzales' appointment as "a poor
choice" after his nomination in November, other critical rights
groups, including HRF and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),
have been somewhat more circumspect.
all groups have demanded – so far without success – that the administration
hand over to the Senate key internal documents that would shed light
on Gonzales' precise role in approving the most controversial memos
bearing on the "war against terrorism." So far, the most provocative
memos, including the ones on the Geneva Conventions and the power
of the president to essentially redefine torture in ways that would
protect U.S. personnel from future prosecution under national or
international law, were initially leaked to the press by unhappy
paper trail disclosed to date, however, clearly establishes that
Gonzales played a central role in three major policy documents:
the original November 2001 presidential order establishing military
commissions that allowed terrorism suspects to be secretly charged,
tried, and even executed without basic due process protections;
the January 2002 claim that the president had the constitutional
authority to deny the Geneva protections, some of whose provisions
Gonzales described as "quaint" and "obsolete," to detainees in the
war in Afghanistan; and the August 2002 Justice Department memo
that contended the president has "commander-in-chief authority"
to order torture and proposed potential legal defenses for U.S.
officials who may be accused of torture.
of these positions have since been rejected either by the courts
or, in the case of the notorious "torture memo," by the Justice
Department, which in a new opinion released just last Thursday significantly
broadened the definition of torture for which individuals could
be prosecuted from the extraordinarily narrow one in the August
new opinion, which significantly did not address one of the most
controversial issues – whether the president as commander-in-chief
could override U.S. laws or even the Constitution – was apparently
designed to ease Gonzales' confirmation. Ironically, according to
Massimino, its failure to address the president's commander-in-chief
authority, which she described as the "most explosive" issue raised
by the legal debate over the terrorism war, "is more likely to cause
problems for Mr. Gonzales than help him."
and his defenders have maintained that the terrorism war represents
a unique and unprecedented threat to the United States that cannot
be addressed effectively through the Geneva Conventions and other
international law. At the same time, they have insisted that torture
memos were legal opinions that had no impact in the field, least
of all in the abuses at Abu Ghraib, which they argued were the work
of a "few bad apples."
the latter position has become largely unsustainable as a tide of
new disclosures over the past six months – most recently, documents
obtained by the ACLU that detailed complaints by the FBI and the
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) on how detainees in Iraq were
being treated – has shown that abuses, including beatings, sexual
humiliation, and torture, were much more widespread than the administration
would buy the 'a few bad apples' [explanation], but once you see
a pattern emerging, it's no longer looks like a few a bad apples,"
said Gen. James Cullen (ret.), one of a dozen retired officers,
including former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman John Shalikashvili,
who wrote to the Judiciary Committee this week to express "deep
concern" about Gonzales' nomination. Cullen said he personally opposed
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2005 Inter Press Service