Sunday, January 14, 2007

Stormy Outlook as Gonzales Faces Senate Democrats

Published: January 13, 2007
The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 — Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who has faced controversy throughout his two-year tenure, is likely to enter an even stormier phase next Thursday when he appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the first time since control fell to the Democrats.

But he shows little anxiety about more vehement criticism of his stewardship at the Justice Department.

“They have an institutional interest to gather up information about what the executive branch is doing,” Mr. Gonzales said Friday, in an interview in which he adopted the mildly juridical tone of a law professor.

Referring to the Justice Department, he said: “We likewise have an institutional interest in maintaining the confidentially of certain kinds of information. From my perspective, there are two competing institutional interests. This is not a partisan issue. It’s an institutional issue of interests that have to be accommodated.”

But there seems to be little likelihood that the Judiciary Committee will be satisfied with that kind of summation.

Mr. Gonzales’s chief antagonist is likely to be the panel’s chairman, Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat who in recent public statements has castigated the Bush administration for years of “corrosive unilateralism” in refusing to cooperate with Congress and said he would enforce the committee’s demands for information with subpoenas if necessary.

“The very nature of the job means I’m going to be in the middle, the department will be in the middle, of all the hard issues, all the difficult issues that the Congress will be very, very interested in,” Mr. Gonzales said. “You’re not going to have total agreement, it’s not going to be a love fest necessarily between the Congress and the attorney general of the United States.”

It was Mr. Gonzales, a former Texas judge, who as White House counsel provided legal thinking to support some of the administration’s most hotly debated operations, like its program of surveillance without warrants. He also wrote a draft memo in January 2002 that said captured members of Al Qaeda should not be covered by the Geneva Conventions — a position later adopted by the administration. He succeeded John Ashcroft as attorney general in 2005.

Although Mr. Leahy recently had lunch with Mr. Gonzales and the two men are on cordial personal terms, the senator has ripped into the Justice Department for ignoring or rejecting his requests over the years for dozens of internal documents and for failing to turn over information about a host of activities, mostly related to counterterrorism policies.

Even so, Mr. Gonzales said he was looking forward to testifying. “I view these hearings as an opportunity to tell our story,” he said. “I think in many ways we have a good story to tell. Sometimes we are constrained because we are in a period of war in giving out as much information as we’d like because there are things we’d like to talk to about.”

In the interview, he said he would seek a conciliatory relationship with Democrats, when and where he can, but would continue to protect zealously what he regards as the department’s core interests. He said the Justice Department had already provided a great deal of information to Congress according to traditional practice and court decisions on the subject.

He said the Justice Department would review each Congressional request in an effort to comply with Congressional demands: “Is there a way to limit the scope of the request? Is there a way to give them the information without actually turning over the documents? Would it suffice to provide a briefing without compromising something that would be extremely damaging to the national security of our country? Could we provide a summary, a written summary, that they would want to see? Perhaps someone in the executive branch would read a portion of a document. We have legal obligation to see what can be done.”

Mr. Gonzales expressed the hope that battles with Congress would not undermine his efforts to accomplish his goals at the Justice Department. “The American people lose if we spend the next two years fighting over documents,” he said.

Mr. Gonzales said he hoped that Congress would work with the Justice Department on other administration priorities, like the protection of children against predators and pedophiles, an overhaul of immigration laws, the elimination of disparities in prison sentences and a crackdown on online pharmacies that sell drugs to teenagers.

He said that he had realized when he took over at the Justice Department that he was likely to be thrust into controversies between law and politics. “I came into this job with my eyes wide open, understanding what the challenges would be, and I have not been disappointed. It’s tough. At the same time, it’s exhilarating.”