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Last week’s Senate confirmation hearing was more about the job that Alberto Gonzales is leaving than the one he is taking. Gonzales, 49, is expected to be confirmed as the nation’s next attorney general in a matter of weeks. But after a one-day hearing Jan. 6, little can be said about how a Justice Department under Gonzales’ leadership would take shape. Instead, lawmakers used the hearing to drill Gonzales about his views on administration policies related to the treatment and interrogation of detainees. Questioning from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee homed in on Gonzales’ role, as White House counsel, in controversial legal memos that critics contend set the tone for abuses at Guant�namo Bay and Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Throughout the hearing, Gonzales remained every bit the lawyer’s lawyer, responding to questions with the sort of caution and deliberation that becomes a counsel to the president. Flanked by family members, Gonzales emphasized that his job had been that of an adviser, not a decision-maker. But that likely will not be his job much longer. If, as expected, he is confirmed as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, Gonzales will need to be decisive. Almost entirely absent from the eight-hour hearing was a discussion of how Gonzales would approach the very different role of attorney general or what experience he brings to the job of running a government department with more than 100,000 employees. Even Gonzales did not seem to have given much thought to the matter. Asked how he’d like to be remembered as attorney general, Gonzales had no ready answer. “I would hope at the end of four years it would be said that Al Gonzales did the very best he could and hopefully was successful in ensuring that there was justice provided to all Americans on a wide spectrum of areas,” he said, after a pause. Gonzales said he would emphasize five general areas: terrorism; civil rights and civil liberties; drugs; violent crime; and obscenity. “My goal, as impossible as it may seem, is to try to ensure that justice is administered across the spectrum.” When pressed by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) as to how he would set priorities, Gonzales responded, “I don’t have specific ideas today about what kinds of priorities would exist for me.” TARGETING TORTURE Lawmakers often use confirmation hearings to highlight issues important to their constituents and to elicit promises from nominees to take certain actions in their new posts. At Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hearing in 2001, Democratic senators pressured Ashcroft for commitments to enforce abortion laws and support the federal ban on assault weapons. But last week, most senators wanted Gonzales to explain his past conduct, not his future plans. “These hearings are about a confirmation, but they’re also about accountability,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) remarked in his opening statement. The focus on Gonzales’ record as White House counsel came as no surprise, and it was a line of inquiry for which the nominee had clearly prepared. Under questioning, Gonzales downplayed his personal involvement in the preparation of a confidential August 2002 memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that adopted a narrow view of what acts might constitute torture. He claimed not to remember key details of his work on the memo, such as which agency had requested it. Leahy asked Gonzales whether he had agreed with the OLC opinion. “I don’t recall today whether or not I was in agreement with all their analysis. But I don’t have a disagreement with the conclusions then reached by the department,” Gonzales replied. “Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the department to tell us what the law means.” Gonzales reminded the Senate panel on several occasions that the 2002 opinion, which became public in June 2004, has since been withdrawn by the administration and replaced by a much narrower legal analysis. He stopped short of disavowing the Justice Department’s original position that the president could lawfully authorize torture under his power as commander-in-chief, saying the president might be entitled to disregard a law passed by Congress that he believed infringed on his constitutional prerogatives. “Whether the president has the authority to authorize conduct in violation of a criminal statute is a very, very difficult question as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “Any decision along that line of reasoning, I would approach with a great deal of seriousness.” He added: “This president has not had a policy or agenda to execute the war on terror in violation of criminal statutes.” VAGUE COMMITMENTS While several senators held up Gonzales’ life story as the embodiment of the American Dream, his r�sum� is short on direct law enforcement experience. One of eight siblings, Gonzales grew up in poverty in the town of Humble, Texas. He became the first person in his family to attend college, graduating from Rice University and going on to earn a law degree from Harvard Law School. Gonzales practiced corporate and real estate law at Houston’s Vinson & Elkins from 1981 until 1995, when he left the law firm to serve as general counsel to then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. Bush appointed Gonzales secretary of state in 1997 and to a seat on the Texas Supreme Court in 1999. Gonzales has served as White House counsel for the entirety of Bush’s first presidential term. Gonzales referenced his background in response to questions about civil rights and immigration matters. But even those answers provided little information in terms of concrete plans for enforcing the law in those areas. Gonzales said he was sensitive to concerns raised by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) about a 2002 Justice Department opinion which allows state and local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws. “Personally, I would worry about a policy that permits a local law enforcement official to use this authority somehow as a club to harass [undocumented aliens],” Gonzales said. “That would be troubling. That would be troubling to the president who, as a governor of a � former governor � of a border state, understands and appreciates the roles that immigrants and undocumented aliens play in our society.” Gonzales also indicated his acceptance of Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, and pledged to appear twice a year before the Judiciary Committee for oversight hearings, something his predecessor resisted. He used his testimony to reach out to career lawyers at the Justice Department: “I feel a special obligation coming from the White House to reassure the career people at the department and to reassure the American people that I’m not going to politicize the Department of Justice.” A BRIEF JOB INTERVIEW Neither the majority Republicans nor the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee seemed interested in drawing out the hearing to examine how Gonzales would, for example, run the Justice Department, work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or wage the day-to-day war on terror. By contrast, Ashcroft’s hearing lasted four days and involved more than 20 outside witnesses. Janet Reno spent two days testifying before the committee, as did her predecessor, William Barr. The new chairman of the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), seemed eager to accommodate the White House in its desire that Gonzales’ nomination come to a full Senate vote before the president’s Jan. 20 inauguration. Around 4 p.m., Specter pressured Kennedy to wrap up his questioning of Gonzales to leave time for the testimony of three outside witnesses � John Hutson, the dean of Concord, N.H.’s Franklin Pierce Law Center and former judge advocate general of the Navy; Harold Koh, dean of Yale Law School and a former State Department official; and Douglas Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture. The witnesses, requested by Democrats, offered harsh criticism of Gonzales to the only three senators who remained in the hearing room � Specter, Leahy, and John Cornyn (R-Texas). Koh said that Gonzales should have rejected the August 2002 OLC opinion on torture or at least sent it to other executive branch agencies for comment. According to an administration aide involved in Gonzales’ confirmation, the White House chose not to request any outside witnesses to offer support for Gonzales, believing that he will win confirmation by a wide margin. Democratic senators did little to shake the administration’s confidence at the hearing. Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.) may have been the most striking example. Biden began his comments by stating, “I don’t know anyone who’s announced they’re against your being the next attorney general. Even those who have doubts about you say you’re going to be confirmed.” Biden then spoke for his full 10-minute allotment of time without asking Gonzales a single question. The tough questions, Biden pledged, would be raised in his second round. But sometime around the lunch break, Biden left the hearing room and never returned.

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