This month marked former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ formal return to Texas, when he officially began his tenure as a visiting professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
On Aug. 6, Gonzales launched his university career when he moved into a bare-walled office in the Tech president’s wing of the school administration building. He will teach his first class — “Contemporary Issues in the Executive Branch” — on Aug. 27. When it comes to his students, all topics are open for discussion, he says, including his time as former President George W. Bush’s White House counsel and as AG, as well as the controversies that arose as a result of his eight years in those jobs.
Gonzales was born in San Antonio. In 1995, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush hired Gonzales, a former Vinson & Elkins transactional lawyer and a 1982 Harvard Law School graduate, to be general counsel at the Governor’s Office. In 1997, Gov. Bush made Gonzales secretary of state, and a year later Bush appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court. In 2001, Gonzales left Austin to become President George W. Bush’s White House counsel in Washington, D.C. Gonzales became U.S. attorney general in 2005, and he resigned that post in 2007.
|See a video of an interview with Alberto Gonzales|
Tech Chancellor Kent Hance says Gonzales will make a wonderful addition to the university. But his hiring has caused a stir. Some Tech faculty members have signed a petition objecting to Gonzales’ employment.
“We talk about the expression of ideas. And some people just want one theme and one philosophy taught in college. And I’ve never been of the philosophy of limiting people who disagree with you,” Hance says. If U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder “resigns tomorrow, I’ll hire him too. We’re in the idea business,” Hance says.
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council interviewed Gonzales on Aug. 6 about a wide range of topics: the so-called “torture memo,” his controversial visit with then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in the hospital, his involvement in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and his future in Lubbock. The interview has been edited for style and length.
Texas Lawyer: You’re going to teach a political science course. What are you going to talk about with the young minds at Texas Tech?
Alberto Gonzales: I’m going to talk a lot about how does the White House actually work, how does legislation . . . really get passed, how does it work between the executive branch and the legislative branch. And how do you get ready for a Supreme Court nomination, how do you pick a nominee, how do you prepare that nominee, how do you get that nominee confirmed? We’re going to look at issues obviously related to the war on terrorism and some of the big issues that this president still confronts, like what do you do with Guantanamo, what do you do about long-term detention. So those are all issues that we’re going to be looking at. And maybe these are issues that, I have to say, will be covered in other courses by other professors around the country, but I dare say very few are going to have the same level of insight, the direct hands-on involvement that I can bring to the students.
TL: I imagine you’re going to have a popular class.
Gonzales: It’s small. It’s limited to 15. And I wanted a very small class to really encourage some serious and candid discussion about these issues, and I felt that was only possible if we limited it. Obviously there was a great deal of interest in these subject matters. I’ve talked to some business folks about maybe doing one or two communitywide speeches . . . about some of these issues that people are interested in hearing about.
TL: Obviously, you participated in one of the most-written about administrations in recent memory.
Gonzales: For now. I’m sure at the end of the next administration people are probably going to say the same thing. That’s what happens with administrations.
TL: Are you going to take on all of the controversial things you were involved in in your class?
Gonzales: Some things lend themselves to a discussion in class. For example, why Guantanamo, what was the reason for that? And moving forward and what are the better alternatives to Guantanamo and long-term detention? And what are we going to do with the terrorists that are captured on the battlefield? Are we going to put them through criminal trials, are we going to bring them all to the United States? Obviously we can’t return them to their countries, many of them are dangerous, and we can’t turn them loose. So we’re going to explore those kinds of issues. Obviously they are tough issues, but I think they deserve a good, healthy, candid discussion and debate with the students. And, look, I want to emphasize that my expectation for the class is not to defend the Bush administration. It is to explain more fully some of the decisions and policies adopted by the Bush administration. And the students can decide. I want them to get both sides. I think, too often, the students only get one side of an issue, and I want to present both sides if possible and let the students decide, “OK, this makes sense” or “I don’t agree with that.”
TL: Let’s talk about some things you will be talking to your students about. I know you’ve said you want to write a book. So let’s talk about how you may address them. Let’s start with when you were White House counsel and the so-called “torture memo.” How would you explain that to the class?
Gonzales: One thing I would emphasize is that the memo was not authored by me. There’s been a misconception that I authored the memo. It was written by lawyers at the Department of Justice when I was in the White House. And again that was an effort by DOJ lawyers to explain what are the outer boundaries of a statute that is fairly vague. I mean, Congress has said that torture is defined as the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering. Well, what does that mean? And what the lawyers tried to do was to define, to give boundaries to what the statute allowed. And we all thought it was very, very important as we engaged in this conflict that the policymakers and those implementing policy understood, “OK, what are the limits?” And that’s what that memo was intended to do was simply to interpret a statute, and obviously people disagree with certain aspects of it. The department since, of course, has retracted that memo and has issued new guidance. My own sense, and this is a very important point, is sometimes guidance is revised much like court decisions are sometimes overturned. People have a different way of approaching issues and different way of thinking. Folks at the Department of Justice look at what the courts are doing. The Supreme Court may issue a decision that may cause them to issue new guidance, and so it’s not surprising — especially when you are talking about very difficult issues — that you would have new guidance issued. And when I was in the administration I encouraged lawyers to continually look at our legal position and to get comfortable if we were in fact on solid ground. And if people wanted to continue to revise, I think that was the appropriate role for lawyers.
TL: And what about the “quaint notion” reference that you made about the Geneva Conventions.
Gonzales: Oh, that’s an easy one. The “quaint” reference was in a confidential memo to the president, and what I said was, “Mr. President, I think it is fair to ask whether certain provisions of the Geneva Conventions — such as a requirement that you provide athletic uniforms, commissary privileges, scientific instruments, a monthly allowance — those are all required by the Geneva Conventions to prisoners of war.” And when I said it was “quaint,” what I was saying is I believe it’s fair to ask whether or not those provisions — when you’re dealing with terrorists who do not follow the laws of war and who kill innocents indiscriminately — aren’t those provisions quaint and outdated? I didn’t mean to say that the provisions of the Geneva Conventions requiring basic humane treatment were outdated. No, I didn’t say that. What I said was certain provisions like those I just described were quaint and outdated and should be revisited. Let me make one final point, and that is I strongly support the primary objective of the Geneva Conventions, which is to ensure the humane treatment of people captured on the battlefield or civilians captured in times of war. Those are very, very important protections, and I certainly support them — as does President Bush, and he was clearly on record in that respect.
TL: I’d like to ask about the situation with Attorney General John Ashcroft and going over to visit him with Andy Card [then-Bush's chief of staff] while Ashcroft was in the hospital. I believe there’s been some disagreement between you and James Comey [then-deputy attorney general] about the reasons for going over there.
Gonzales: I’m not sure we said different things. All I’m going to say about it is this, and the IG [U.S. inspector general] just issued a report, and unfortunately they can only issue an unclassified version of a much, much longer classified report. Andy Card and I went to see the attorney general at the direction of the president of the United States. We were asked to go following a very important meeting with the congressional leadership where there was consensus that we continue one of the most important intelligence programs for the United States during a particularly dangerous period. And I would remind your readers that the very next morning that the Madrid bombings happened. General Ashcroft, we believed, had approved these activities for a number of years, and we wanted to ensure that General Ashcroft was aware of what happened at the congressional meeting, and of course we wanted to make sure that what we were hearing from Jim Comey was in fact his position. I’m going to get into a lot more detail about this stuff in my book. But I think it’s important to understand that we went there at the direction of the president. And there wasn’t anything unlawful about it. And we went there to make sure that he had certain information.
TL: Why didn’t you go to Jim Comey first? Wasn’t he acting attorney general at that time?
Gonzales: Well, the reason we went to General Ashcroft is because he is the one who had been approving this program and these activities for a number of years. And he had been the Senate-confirmed attorney general, and as far as the president was concerned, that’s the person he wanted us to talk to. Let me make one final point. I have a great deal of respect for General Ashcroft, and neither Andy Card nor I and certainly the president would have done anything to take advantage of him.
TL: I don’t think you’ve ever said what that program was. It’s assumed it was a warrantless wiretap program.
Gonzales: It wasn’t about TSP [Terrorist Surveillance Program]. I’m on record as saying that. The IG has now concluded that I did not . . . intend to mislead Congress when I said that.”
TL: So you’re free and clear on that. But there are still some issues out there for you to deal with.
Gonzales: You know, there still is. After the U.S. attorney firings, the IG issued a report and found no wrongdoing by me, but the IG also believed that it could not adequately investigate the role of the White House and Sen. [Pete] Domenici, [R-N.M.], in those removals, and they asked Attorney General [Michael] Mukasey to appoint a special prosecutor to look into that and see whether or not there had been any criminal wrongdoing. General Mukasey appointed Nora Dannehy. And her investigation is still ongoing. But again, I can’t talk much about it because it is an ongoing investigation. But the reason she was appointed was to look to see what happened in the White House and with Sen. Domenici. But I want to emphasize that . . . I sat down with the IG for several hours . . . and I’ve fully cooperated as much as I can. And there was no finding of anything improper, anything illegal, anything criminal in the removals of the U.S. attorneys on my part.
TL: Let’s talk more about that. That started around 2007, and people started saying, “Wow. The president wants to fire his own U.S. attorneys.” I don’t think we’d seen a lot of that before.
Gonzales: Let’s talk a little bit about that. Of course, President Clinton fired them all, all 93 when he became president. People say, “Well, that was different.” Well, why was that different? Let me just say that some people say it was wrong to fire them because it might interrupt ongoing important cases. Well, if you fire all 93 U.S. attorneys at the same time, why isn’t there the same concern that you’re going to interrupt ongoing very important cases?
TL: But that was between George H.W. Bush’s administration and the Clinton administration.
Gonzales: But again, those investigations don’t stop. They continue. The other thing I would want your readers to understand is over the course of four years and eight years, there is a great deal of turnover. And, certainly, more than seven or eight U.S. attorneys leave or are asked to leave quietly during that period of time. What is unusual, I will concede, is the fact that there was a group that was asked to leave at one time. But the fact that seven or eight might have been asked to leave is not unusual during the course of four years or eight years. It happens, because unfortunately from time to time, individuals in those positions just aren’t doing their job. And from time to time they do something that is wrong. And from time to time, a president may simply want to make a change. He may want to have someone else in that position, which is perfectly appropriate. So during the course of four years or eight years changes occur in U.S. attorneys’ offices. That happens in most positions.
TL: But again, the reason that became such a big story was the political overtures involved in all of the firings of the U.S. attorneys.
Gonzales: I think it was politicized by critics of the president. If you look at the report, it conceded that the U.S. attorney from San Francisco and, I think, from Michigan, that there were legitimate management issues. It agreed that the U.S. attorney from San Diego did not meet the president’s policies or expectations relating to gun prosecutions. The report conceded that the U.S. attorney out of Arizona, that there was an issue related to a course of action they took with respect to a death penalty case. So the point I want to make is that the report indicated and found that there were reasons that virtually all of these U.S. attorneys were removed. Now, with respect to the one that the report left open was the removal of the U.S. attorney out of New Mexico. That’s the primary reason, and I can’t speak for the special prosecutor or for the Justice Department, but I think it’s in connection with that removal that people want to talk to folks in the White House and perhaps Sen. Dominici’s office. But I can’t say any more about it because it’s an ongoing investigation.
TL: Let me ask you this. In general, how involved were you in all of these firings?
Gonzales: I’ve already testified about how involved I was. I directed my chief of staff to identify where changes may be appropriate and maybe helpful to the department’s mission and to consult with the department leadership, the people that would know best the work of these U.S. attorneys. And, also, because these are presidential appointees, I couldn’t fire them. That move would have to be made by the White House, to make sure the White House knew what was happening and the White House was OK with this. Beyond that my involvement has been documented in terms of my testimony to Congress and in my answering questions from the IG. I accept responsibility. I made the decision based upon the recommendations made to me. These were my decisions, and I accept responsibility, and the IG concluded that there was nothing illegal or improper about those removals. I think there was a disagreement about how it was handled, and, well before the IG report came out, I conceded in congressional testimony that in hindsight, I would have done things better; I would have done things a little differently. But there was nothing improper on my part in these removals. And that was confirmed by the IG report. . . .
TL: I’ve always looked as you as a loyal soldier. You’ve been incredibly loyal to President Bush.
Gonzales: When did that become a bad thing?
TL: It’s not a bad thing.
Gonzales: OK, so what’s your question?
TL: My question is loyalty versus being an objective counselor. I think a lot of my readers think, “Which one are you, loyal or an objective counselor to the president?”
Gonzales: You’re loyal. Look, someone like an attorney general wears two hats. You’re a member of the president’s team; you’re on his Cabinet. You have an obligation to promote the president’s law enforcement policies and priorities. He campaigned on those policies, and you have an obligation as a Cabinet official to make sure they’re implemented. But you also wear a different hat. You’re the chief law enforcement officer for the country. And if you have to investigate the White House for wrongdoing, you have to investigate the White House for wrongdoing, and I would have done that. And I think anyone who is unable to do that is not qualified to serve in these positions. So, there were times when I disagreed with the president, and I told the president. I think people have this notion that if you’re the attorney general, you can’t agree with anything, you can’t support anything of the president. That’s a naïve understanding. That’s a misunderstanding of the world of the attorney general and our system of government. . . . So, my response to your question is I think everyone who works for the president and is appointed by the president should be loyal to the president and the president’s policies and priorities. But they take an oath and they’ve got to, of course, discharge their obligations under that oath, and I tried to do that every day.
TL: After you resigned, what did you do?
Gonzales: I gave speeches, I mediated and consulted. And that continues; that will continue. My arrangement is such at Texas Tech I’ll be able to teach. I’ll be able to work on this minority recruitment/retention program. I’m going to continue to write. I’m going to continue to give speeches. I’m going to continue to mediate and consult, so all my work will still continue.
TL: Is this how you thought it would be after you left the administration?
Gonzales: I’m not sure I gave it much thought after I left the administration. I was in public service for 13, 14 years. I knew it would end at some point, and I probably assumed I’d go back to practicing law. This is much more attractive to me, quite frankly. Over the course of two years, I’ve met a number of unhappy lawyers, very unfulfilled lawyers, and so this is a good avenue for me. It allows me to pursue other interests. I like students, and I like engaging in candid, honest discussions about tough issues, and so this is a good thing for me right now. And I want to go back to your one question about loyalty. I think it’s important for your readers to know that for me my No. 1 loyalty was, of course, always to the Constitution and the American people, always. But, obviously, I have a great deal of affection and respect for President Bush. And, as I said, as a member of the president’s Cabinet and team, not only did I have an obligation, I really wanted to have the president succeed.
TL: And now you’re in the world of academia, the ivory tower as it were. It’s interesting that you would want to go into academia because there’s so much screaming and yelling and protesting at universities.
Gonzales: I’m used to screaming and yelling and protesting. I dealt with Congress for many years. Listen, isn’t it great that in our country, people can scream and yell and protest? That’s what America is about.
TL: So what was your reaction to the petition being circulated by the faculty at Tech that protests you coming here?
Gonzales: I, of course, again think that it’s great in our country that people can express their views in that way. I’m serious about my teaching obligations. I’m also really serious about my obligations to help Tech’s recruitment efforts of minorities. I think generally the folks here in Lubbock are very fair and open-minded. I think at the end of the year . . . they’re going to see that my presence here has been a net plus to the university and a net benefit to the students.
TL: Are you planning to move to Lubbock and move your family and your wife here? [Gonzales' family lives in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.]
Gonzales: That’s our hope. I just think it’s better for families to be together. And, for a variety of reasons, people have to commute, and there’s a long distance to commute. I think that’s tough for a family. I love my sons. I see them every day if I can, and we’re going to try to make that work. That’s our objective, certainly. Obviously we have a house to sell . . . and it’s a very tough market right now. So we’re wrestling with a lot of things, but our goal obviously is to get the family here to Texas.
TL: You’ve got a one-year contract with the university for $100,000?
Gonzales: In government, everyone knows what your salary is.
TL: At the end of that year are you going to re-evaluate whether you are comfortable here?
Gonzales: I would say this: I’m told they can only offer me a one-year contract because that’s what they do for visiting professors. And obviously we’ll have to see at the end of the year whether Tech is happy with me and how we feel about Tech and the community. But our family, right now at least, is committed to making a very significant investment in this community. I mean, moving my family here is a pretty strong statement. Again, I can’t prejudge where we’re going to be in a year in terms of how Tech or how I feel, but hopefully we’re making a strong statement to the Lubbock community about where we think we’ll be in a couple of years.
TL: What’s attractive about Lubbock and teaching here?
Gonzales: I like the people. It’s funny, you always ask someone, “What do you like about something?” and they always say, “It’s the people.” Just like last night, I’m out at Target at 9 o’clock getting all kinds of things for an apartment, and a number of people came up to me and introduced themselves and told me how pleased they were that I was coming and welcoming me to the Lubbock community. It’s very friendly, and it’s very open, and, as I’ve said, it’s a very fair-minded community. I like the university feel. Austin is a big college town, and it’s got the Capitol and that’s a big part of the community. Here, Texas Tech is a big part of the community, and I like that. I think my children are going to enjoy that.
TL: If they embraced Bobby Knight with open arms, why not Al Gonzales?
Gonzales: But they really didn’t. I was told that he was protested as well. My reaction to that is I’m in damn good company if they’re protesting Bobby Knight and me.