Richard Reeves

Gonzales: A Man Who Lost His Way

LOS ANGELES -- Seems like a nice guy, does Alberto Gonzales. Great personal story, too. But he has done enormous damage to this country as counsel to the president these last four years.

The most pointed questioning and commentary about his record in the first day of his confirmation hearings as attorney general did not come from Democratic liberals on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senators Edward Kennedy and Charles Schumer were respectful and restrained. The harshest words and judgments came from Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

Speaking of Gonzales' role in the formulation of new and deeply disturbing U.S. policy on torture in war, on the defining and treatment of prisoners taken or seized in Afghanistan and Iraq, and on our holding pens at Guantanamo, Graham was direct and focused. He was the one who said, without fancy words or legalisms, that Gonzales had played a crucial role in "creating legal chaos," in "putting our troops in jeopardy" and in "losing the moral high ground."

"I do believe we have lost our way," said Graham.

"I think you're a good lawyer and I will vote for your nomination," Graham continued. The reason he then gave was that, after all, the White House decisions on torture and detention -- and ignoring the law -- were ultimately made not by the counsel but by the commander in chief. Gonzales, no matter how ignorant and amoral his counsel, was just another staffer. After all, the president could have fired him -- and should have.

In his opening statement, Gonzales said most of the right things, emphasizing that he believes the United States must be a land of laws and not men. "We all love our country," he said, a refreshing note from this gang, "and want to protect it while remaining true to our nation's highest ideals."

"We must be committed to preserving civil rights and civil liberties," he added later.

But by then he had lost me. In fact, Gonzales lost me in the third paragraph of his opening statement: "The Department of Justice's top priority is to prevent terror attacks against our nation."

I don't agree with that -- and neither does history. The office of attorney general, created by the Judiciary Act of 1789, was a one-man operation to prosecute lawsuits before the Supreme Court, which was created by the same act. Times change. The Justice Department now has 112,000 employees and multiple tasks. Obviously fighting terrorism is one of them, a priority of all the government. It is the top priority of the new Department of Homeland Security, which absorbed many duties (particularly immigration control) that were once delegated to Justice. Perhaps fighting terrorism could be considered the top priority of the Department of Defense these days, or even of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a small part of the Justice Department.

But the Justice Department's priority should be "justice," or as it officially defines its own role: "to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans."

We have, as Sen. Graham said, lost our way. We are headed back to some of the worst excesses in our history -- the incarceration, without charge, of Japanese-Americans during World War II being one of them. The best analogy to these times in our history might be the excesses of World War I and its aftermath, which climaxed with the Palmer Raids from 1919 to 1921.

Alexander Mitchell Palmer, a former congressman who was President Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, arrested and detained without charge more than 15,000 people on suspicion of being communists or anarchists or whatever. Socialist elected public officials were arbitrarily removed from office. A clothing salesman in Connecticut was thrown in jail for six months because someone overheard him saying he thought Lenin was very smart. And things got worse after an anarchist blew himself up in front of Palmer's house.

Palmer made terrorism his top priority and ended up disgracing the Justice Department. I find it hard to believe Gonzales is as foolish and dangerous as Palmer was. But he has lost his way. Our new nominee was fool enough, or blindly loyal enough to his president, to clumsily argue that torture and secret detention were necessary now to keep America free -- all in the name of justice.

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