Alberto Gonzales's cookery lesson

30 May 2007

It's an internet legend that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, he'll jump out, but if you put him in cold water and then heat the pot, the frog doesn't notice the temperature change and is cooked. This apocryphal tale describes the career of the United States attorney-general Alberto Gonzales: in the past six years his perfidy has increased - "heated up", if you will; only it's not Gonzales but the United States justice system that's been cooked, as a result.

As White House counsel, Gonzales lurked in the shadows until, in 2003, The Atlantic Monthly published an exposé, "The Texas Clemency Memos". Alan Berlow obtained fifty-seven death-penalty memos Gonzales had prepared in his role as counsel to then governor of Texas, George W Bush. The writer noted that Gonzales's memoranda were superficial and consistently recommended denial of clemency regardless of how egregious the defendant's circumstances were: mental illness or retardation, inadequate counsel, or questionable circumstantial evidence. As a reward for his loyalty, Bush enlisted Gonzales as a key member of his White House team.

Bob Burnett is a writer based in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected] Also by Bob Burnett in openDemocracy: "A liberal foreign policy for the US: ten maxims" (27 February 2007) "America's choice: imperial vs constitutional rule" (10 May 2007) "The road not taken: the Iraq Study Group" (21 May 2007)

Over the past six years, a picture has emerged of the day-to-day duties and responsibilities of the Bush inner circle: Karl Rove ensures that every presidential decision maximises Bush's political power; Dick Cheney attacks Bush critics and plays "bad cop" to Dubya's "good cop"; and Alberto Gonzales provides the legal cover for every White House action.

In the service of the White House, Gonzalez sponsored an expansion of presidential authority far beyond anything envisioned by the signers of the US constitution. In the "Authorization for Use of Military Force" that Congress approved on 18 September 2001: "the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism."

Coupled with the Patriot Act, passed on 26 October 2001, this gave Bush the power to go after anyone who he deemed to be a threat to the United States, anywhere, using any means.

From this base, Gonzales launched three other initiatives: use of "signing statements", authorisation of torture, and wiretapping of domestic communications. Instead of vetoing bills that he disagreed with, Bush has attached signing statements to more than 750 laws. These memoranda assert that the president reserved the right not to follow certain provisions of the act. For example, in December 2005, Congress banned torture, but Bush only signed the law with this proviso: "The president, as commander in chief, can waive the torture ban if he decides that harsh interrogation techniques will assist in preventing terrorist attacks."

Gonzales helped formulate administration policy that asserted the Geneva conventions do not apply to suspects in Bush's "war on terror". This legitimised use of any interrogation method that did not result in the death of detainees and advocated denial of due process to those classified as "enemy combatants."

Justice's eclipse

In December 2005, The New York Times revealed that the Bush administration had been eavesdropping on the phone-calls of American citizens without going through the legal process prescribed by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa). Gonzales oversaw this initiative. Asked why the Administration didn't honor Fisa, which requires a special court to authorise eavesdropping, Gonzales responded: "For operational reasons, there were some issues that made it difficult to use FISA." The administration continued to monitor domestic communications and Gonzales enthusiastically supported this practice.

When Bush was elected to his second term as president, attorney-general John Ashcroft resigned and was succeeded by Alberto Gonzales. The most recent brouhaha concerned Gonzales's heavy-handed firing of eight US attorneys. Three scandals lay behind these dismissals. The first concerned the failure of the justice department to investigate disenfranchisement of US voters. Disenfranchisement was a major issue in both the 2000 and 2004 elections; yet, according to Marjorie Cohn: "No voting discrimination cases were brought on behalf of African-American or Native American voters from 2001 to 2006. Instead, the Administration instigated efforts that would further disenfranchise these voters."

The second scandal centered on Gonzales' efforts to politicise the day-to-day administration of the department of justice. As a result, the focus of many US attorneys turned to attacking Democrats. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman reported:

"Donald Shields and John Cragan, two professors of communication, have compiled a database of investigations and/or indictments of candidates and elected officials by U.S. attorneys since the Bush administration came to power. Of the 375 cases they identified, 10 involved independents, 67 involved Republicans, and 298 involved Democrats."

The third scandal was Gonzales' misrepresentation of his role in subverting the department of justice. He denied involvement by claiming either that subordinates made key decisions or he did not remember what happened. In his Senate testimony on 19 April 2007, Gonzales uttered the phrase "I don't recall", or the equivalent, sixty-four times. Nonetheless, there is substantial evidence that Gonzales was the justice department's focal- point in implementing the Machiavellian policies orchestrated by Karl Rove.

Attorney-general Gonzales has led an effort to replace competent US attorneys with wildly partisan, marginally qualified Bush supporters. For example, in December 2006, Gonzales replaced the US attorney for Arkansas, Bud Cummins, with Tim Griffin. Griffin's principal qualification was his experience directing a nefarious voter-disqualification scheme before the 2004 election.

At the time of his confirmation as attorney-general, critics lambasted Alberto Gonzales's qualifications, saying he had neither the legal or managerial experience required to function as head of the department of justice. But, they missed the point: in the Bush administration loyalty trumps competence, and ideological rigidity eclipses principle (see Sidney Blumenthal, "The Republican subversion of law", 20 March 2007).

Alberto Gonzales has emerged as the ultimate Bush toady: as a consequence, the water he swims in gets hotter and hotter, but this hasn't affected Gonzales; however, it's cooked the unwitting American public who depend upon the justice system to protect its rights.

US election: what's at stake for the rest of us?

Our editor-in-chief, Mary Fitzgerald, is on the ground in key battleground states ahead of the US election.

There's never been more at stake. But the pandemic has kept many foreign journalists away. Hundreds of international observers who normally oversee US elections aren't there.

Hear Mary describe what she's seeing and hearing across the country, from regular citizens to social justice activists to right-wing militias arming themselves for election day.

Plus: hear from the journalists behind openDemocracy's latest big 'follow-the-money' investigation, which lifts the lid on how Trump-linked groups have exported their culture wars across the world.

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