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Gonzales' role in treatment of prisoners to be a key issue at hearings

WASHINGTON—Does Alberto Gonzales, President Bush's choice to be the next attorney general, believe that the president has inherent powers to override laws and treaties and allow torture?

Does he still think the Geneva Conventions, the treaty establishing standards of fair treatment of prisoners of war, are "obsolete" when it comes to interrogating terrorist suspects?

And can Gonzales make the transition from White House counsel—known for zealous loyalty to his client, George Bush—to become attorney general, the nation's top law enforcement official and protector of the rule of law?

Gonzales will face these questions when his confirmation hearings begin Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His involvement in a series of debates and decisions that may have paved the way for harsh treatment of prisoners—even their torture—will be a central issue.

Retired generals and admirals, veterans' groups and more than 220 religious leaders criticized Gonzales' record this week. Critics include former Gen. John Shalikashvili, who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, and Dr. C. Rene Padilla, a Latino evangelical leader.

A personable lawyer with a Horatio Alger story—he was the son of Mexican migrant workers—Gonzales became Texas Gov. Bush's general counsel in 1994 and has been a close adviser since. He would be the first Hispanic attorney general and is often mentioned for a Supreme Court vacancy.

"Perhaps the key question for senators is, will he be an attorney general who follows the rule of law first, or is he the president's man first?" said Scott Silliman, who heads the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.

Few see obstacles to Gonzales' confirmation, but senators say they will closely question Gonzales on the most controversial parts of his record.

In January 2002, he advised Bush that the demands of a "new kind of war" on terror and the need to get information quickly from suspected terrorists "rendered obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning prisoners."

Over the strenuous objections of Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush agreed with Gonzales that prisoners captured in the war in Afghanistan and other "enemy combatants" did not have Geneva Convention protections.

Gonzales also requested a memo from the Justice Department in August 2002 that asserted a president's power to set aside laws and treaties and to allow torture.

It defined torture as physical pain that is "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."

It also explored ways to insulate officials from war crimes prosecution. Gonzales disavowed the memo when it was leaked last spring, and Justice officials rejected it last week.

Critics say those memos—and others the White House has refused to release—cut back on Geneva Convention protections and set the stage for the prison abuse scandal in Abu Ghraib and mistreatment of captives at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp.

"It was bad law, bad diplomacy, bad morality, bad politics and bad from a practical point of view," said John Hutson, a retired rear admiral and Navy judge advocate general who plans to testify against Gonzales.

Hutson is one of a dozen retired generals and admirals who complained that Gonzales effectively froze military lawyers out of key decisions, eroded 50 years of military justice and endangered U.S. forces, who may face mistreatment when captured.

Courts have struck down Gonzales' argument that Guantanamo is a prison camp outside the authority of U.S. courts and his arguments for using military commissions to try suspects and for holding some citizens without charge as enemy combatants.

"He has shown such an appalling departure from good judgment, he should not be attorney general," said retired Brig. Gen. John Cullen, former chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals.

A group of religious leaders Tuesday said they had "grave concern" over Gonzales' appointment, and appealed to him as a "self-professed evangelical Christian" to renounce torture in all cases and stop the practice of sending some prisoners to nations that use torture.

"We fear that your legal judgments have paved the way to torture and abuse," they wrote. The letter was signed by clerical leaders of at least seven faiths, including 21 rabbis from the Philadelphia area.

Gonzales has said little since June, when he declared that some of the "torture" memos were "irrelevant or unnecessary" because the president had denounced torture as a tactic.

Gonzales' defenders say critics are overlooking his role as Bush's lawyer to foster debate and explore legal options.

"Sure, they were groping—looking at what kind of stress techniques we can use to get the information we need to save lives," said Lee Casey, who helped shape policy in the Justice Department in Republican administrations. "But the notion that the `torture' memos had anything to do with Abu Ghraib is just poppycock. It's vicious politics."

That connection, or lack of it, is what the Judiciary Committee must wrestle with.

"Did those free-wheeling discussions get out of the conference room, into the chain of command? Did it penetrate the thinking of people in the military and CIA? That's the issue," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.


(Davies reports for The Miami Herald.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Alberto Gonzales

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041110 GONZALES bio

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