WASHINGTON—President Bush this week gets the attorney general he wanted for his Cabinet, Alberto Gonzales, a longtime Texas friend and his White House counsel during his first term.
Although a president is given wide latitude in choosing his own Cabinet no matter which party controls the Senate, the time may come when the question is asked: Did Republican senators do George Bush any favor when they voted to confirm Gonzales as the nation's chief of law enforcement?
We have not yet gotten to the bottom, or the top, of the prisoner abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or the extra-legal or illegal status of the foreigners imprisoned without charges or legal protection at America's own Devil's Island at Guantanamo, Cuba.
Despite his faulty memory and his denials in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales' fingerprints, and his legal advice, are all over the administration's papers that sought to turn both the U.S. Constitution and the Geneva Conventions on their heads.
Opinions and advice flowed out of the White House to both the Justice Department and the Defense Department beginning early in 2002 as to the lack of prisoner-of-war status and legal protection for people taken prisoner by American military forces, first in Afghanistan and then later in Iraq.
At the Pentagon that advice was turned into guidance that flowed down from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, and from Myers on down the chain of command.
The message was fairly straightforward. The al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan were not to be accorded POW status under the Geneva Conventions. They were not to be brought onto American soil, for fear they might seek the legal protections accorded our own citizens. We would build a concentration camp at the old American military base at Guantanamo. We would create military tribunals to try those we had evidence against, while the rest of them could rot in limbo forever.
Powerful men debated over what amount of mistreatment or pressure might constitute torture. Snarling dogs were OK. The water board that semi-drowns a prisoner might be OK. Twenty hours of non-stop interrogation by yelling and screaming guards was fine. Rumsfeld thought making a prisoner stand for four hours straight wasn't nearly enough; how about 8 hours? he asked. Naked prisoners locked for days in a very cold room? Not a problem. Some lawyer even wrote that the infliction of severe pain wasn't really torture unless it matched in intensity with organ failure or death.
At the bottom end of the chain of command it was Army specialists and sergeants, Reservists from the mountains of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, who would decide that the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were less than human and subject to no rule of law or common decency.
The powerful men who set all this in motion all rushed to denounce criminal acts committed by a few, a very few, bad people in soldier uniforms. Court-martial them and put them away and everything's just fine. Actually it isn't fine and it won't be until our government backs away from the abyss that lawless acts constitute.
Gonzales is the first of his Hispanic heritage to serve as our country's chief law enforcement officer. Normally that would be something for all of us to be proud of, something that speaks loudly about who were are and what we cherish.
But these are hardly normal times. The president and his men, including Gonzales, tell us that we are at war, the global war on terror. They have decided that some of those we take prisoner are outside the protection of law—either U.S. law or international law.
No doubt some future Congress, 30 or 40 years from now, will pass a resolution apologizing for this unseemly and undemocratic and un-American behavior.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young