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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales can’t seem to shake the image that he’s loyal to a fault. During hearings before the Senate Judicary Committee this month over the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program, the former White House counsel repeatedly referred to President George W. Bush as his “client.” That struck a nerve with a number of former Justice Department officials, who charge that Gonzales’ true fealty lies with the White House, even when presidential prerogatives appear to clash with the law. “This is an attorney general who views his client as the president of the United States and not the Constitution,” says Bruce Fein, a former associate deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration. “He certainly serves with great distinction, but he’s very much been the president’s attorney,” says Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman and U.S. attorney under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who has criticized the domestic eavesdropping program. “Independent is certainly not a term that comes readily to mind.” Gonzales, however, doesn’t seem to be worried about keeping his distance. And he says his personal and political ties to the president have not trumped his duty to the law. “People need to realize that as attorney general, you wear two hats,” he said in an interview last week with Legal Times. “I’m on the president’s team, and I have an obligation and responsibility to push forward the president’s agenda. . . . I’m also the chief law enforcement officer of the country, and so in connection with investigations and prosecutions I put aside my team hat and people expect me to act independently.” Questions of independence have dogged Gonzales since before he took the helm of the Justice Department, in February 2005. After all, Gonzales’ career arc from Texas real estate lawyer to state supreme court judge to White House counsel and finally attorney general typically has been cast in terms of his relationship with the president. At his confirmation hearings last winter, Gonzales pledged to senators that “I will no longer represent only the White House. I will represent the United States of America and its people.” In a year in which the White House has maintained it has the right to wiretap Americans without a court order and continued to assert its authority to sidestep international treaties and military guidelines banning the use of cruel and abusive treatment against foreign prisoners, the decision-making of the nation’s top law enforcement officer has come under scrutiny now more than ever. Gonzales has also had to deal with allegations of political meddling in the department’s case against the tobacco industry and within its Civil Rights Division. Gonzales has had trouble shedding his image as the president’s lawyer, in part, because he helped shape many of the administration’s most controversial policies during his four-year stint as White House counsel. At congressional hearings on warrantless wiretapping earlier this month, Gonzales was closely questioned about his own role in laying the legal groundwork for the program in 2001. In some ways that interrogation mirrored Gonzales’ confirmation hearings a year earlier, in which senators pressed him on his involvement in promulgating the 2002 “torture memo” that provided justification for the abuse of foreign prisoners. Gonzales’ allies point to his lack of interference in special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s leak investigation and the Jack Abramoff criminal probe as examples of when politics and White House policy haven’t affected law enforcement activities. “I think all of the indications so far are that Judge Gonzales has been adhering to traditions of insulating the law enforcement functions of the department from politics,” says Bradford Berenson, who worked as a lawyer at the White House under Gonzales. Others praise him for continuing the department’s focus on terrorism and for gaining a quick appreciation of its institutional culture. “He has picked up the thread on Justice’s key role on the national security challenges we face now and has been active and quite effective in that regard,” says George Terwilliger III, a deputy attorney general under the first President Bush. THE GENERAL AND THE JUDGE While Democrats took Gonzales to task during his confirmation, from some quarters there was an almost audible exhale of relief that he was anyone but his predecessor, John Ashcroft, the sharp-elbowed conservative who famously questioned the patriotism of those who criticized administration policies. Gone are the curtains that Ashcroft had commissioned to hide the bare aluminum breast on the “Spirit of Justice” statue in the Justice Department’s Great Hall. But beyond symbolic changes, those who’ve worked with Gonzales say he takes a markedly different leadership approach. “There’s no doubt Ashcroft was more independent from the White House than Gonzales,” says one ex-DOJ lawyer who worked with both. “You could tell [Ashcroft] was a former governor. He had a plan for each meeting. Whether or not you agree with him, there was little doubt where he stood. . . . Gonzales is more thoughtful, reflective. You could tell he was more of an adviser.” That difference in style is evident in Gonzales’ preference in title. Whereas his predecessor was known as “General Ashcroft,” the current attorney general prefers to be called “Judge Gonzales,” a moniker he’s retained since his brief stint on the Texas Supreme Court, from 1999 to 2000. And while those who’ve worked with Gonzales praise him for his listening skills, they say his tight-lipped nature makes it difficult to gauge his views. “He tends to play his cards close to his vest,” says a former senior Justice official, who also requested anonymity. “It is not uncommon to walk out of a meeting with him and not know what he thinks.” And despite some high-profile disputes with the department’s career lawyers, Gonzales has made efforts to reach out to the rank and file. He is known to occasionally drop in to offices unannounced to greet employees and is often seen eating in the department’s new cafeteria. Despite his more conciliatory mien, on the most controversial policy issues, Gonzales has stayed firmly in the White House’s camp. Whereas Ashcroft clashed with others in the administration over publicizing terrorism threats and reportedly expressed hesitation about the NSA surveillance program, Gonzales has not only vigorously defended warrantless wiretapping but ordered a criminal investigation into how the program’s existence was leaked to The New York Times. Nor is there any public evidence that Gonzales has taken his own road on any substantive issue. When asked to name a single instance in the past year in which he’s taken an action at odds with White House policy or political goals, Gonzales responded, “I could, but I won’t.” His reasoning: No lawyer should discuss “internal discussions or disagreements or agreements with their clients.” If the political leadership of the DOJ has largely avoided public battles with the White House during Gonzales’ first year, the same isn’t true of its relationship with the department’s career attorneys. Tensions between career attorneys and their political masters at the DOJ have been the most acute in the Civil Rights Division. There, a number of recently departed career prosecutors have spoken publicly about changes in the department’s personnel practices (changes begun under Ashcroft and continued under Gonzales) that have given political appointees a larger role in the hiring of career staff — a move they view as an effort to stock the division with conservative-leaning lawyers less interested in prosecuting civil rights abuses. There has been “much more political hiring,” says Joseph Rich, a 37-year DOJ veteran who retired as chief of the Civil Rights’ voting section last year. “If you looked at the r�sum�s, you would see a conservative bent to the attorneys who were hired.” Rich and other recently departed career Civil Rights Division lawyers say that Gonzales’ DOJ has also used early-retirement incentives to accelerate what they view as an ideological transformation. “There’s obviously a very conscious effort to get rid of the people who are enforcing the civil rights laws,” says William Yeomans, a longtime Civil Rights Division lawyer who took a buyout last year. Career lawyers have also protested that politics influenced two controversial cases during the past year. In one instance, after Civil Rights Division leadership approved a controversial Georgia voter identification law, a 51-page memo was leaked showing that a committee of five DOJ staff attorneys had found evidence the law would reduce voting access for minorities. A federal judge later issued an injunction blocking the law on the grounds that it constituted a poll tax. And last June the department made a remarkable shift in course in its long-running civil racketeering suit against the tobacco industry, asking a federal court for a penalty that was $120 billion less than what the government’s own expert had recommended. In December, Sharon Eubanks, the lead prosecutor on the case, retired from the department, citing a lack of support from DOJ leadership. Gonzales, who says he deferred to Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum in the tobacco case, calls the perception that the department has become more politicized “incorrect” and adds that debates within the department are healthy. “At the end of the day, the fact that there may be disagreement with some of the career folks doesn’t mean that the ultimate decision is the wrong decision,” he says. “I’m not worried that there’s disagreement. What I’m worried about is whether or not we’re following the law.” POLITICS AND PROSECUTIONS If Gonzales’ first year on the job has been a political minefield, his second is not likely to get much easier. The investigation into lawmakers’ contacts with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff appears likely to result in the indictment of one or more Republican congressmen. How those cases are handled and the role of Gonzales and other political appointees in overseeing them are certain to be closely watched. Earlier this month 35 Senate Democrats asked the Justice Department to appoint an independent special prosecutor in the Abramoff matter, a move Gonzales and acting Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty have so far resisted. Though Gonzales has never served as a prosecutor, he got an unwelcome glimpse into a federal investigation in June 2004 when he was called to testify as a witness before the grand jury in DOJ special prosecutor Fitzgerald’s investigation into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity to the press. (Gonzales has recused himself from supervising Fitzgerald’s case.) Gonzales says the department will remain focused on fighting terrorism. That pursuit will be enhanced, he says, when the department creates a new national security division — a mammoth and long-stalled reorganization that awaits congressional approval. And his department may yet get another opportunity to build on one of its crowning achievements, the successful shepherding of two Supreme Court nominees. Gonzales, once considered a front-runner for a Court vacancy (and who may be again), won’t say he regrets not having been nominated to the high court. “Even if . . . there were no more nominations to the Court, I think it’s a tremendous legacy for this president to have John Roberts and Sam Alito,” he says with a smile.
Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected].

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