WASHINGTON - On the eve of the confirmation hearing of Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales, human rights groups and a dozen retired generals and admirals--including a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--are calling on the U.S. Senate to thoroughly review the nominee's role in devising the Bush administration's detention and interrogation policies in its "war against terrorism."
Although no group has taken a formal position--yet--on whether or not Gonzales should be confirmed, they have all expressed skepticism about his suitability for the position. Gonzales served as George W. Bush's White House Counsel until his nomination shortly after the November elections. His authorship or approval of a number of memos that questioned the application of national and international law to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are at the root of the controversy surrounding his nomination.
"There are too many questions swirling around Mr. Gonzales' role in developing the legal framework that may have led to the torture and abuse we all saw in those Abu Ghraib photographs," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He was referring to the abuses that took place at the Iraqi prison in October, 2003, that were disclosed last spring.
"The Senate has a duty not to soft pedal in its questioning," he noted, stressing that the White House should release all documents relating to the treatment of detainees, to provide a clear picture of Gonzales' role in shaping the policies that led to the abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
Romero's remarks were echoed by Elisa Massimino, the Washington director of Human Rights First (HRF), formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "Mr. Gonzales has the burden of demonstrating that he can exercise independent judgment within the bounds of the rule of law," she said at a press conference Tuesday with the retired military brass.
"His record so far on that score is not encouraging. Mr. Gonzales facilitated positions--on torture, interrogations, detention and executive power--that have been rejected by the courts and have failed as a matter of policy," she added.
If confirmed, Gonzales, 49, will be the first Hispanic citizen to hold a top cabinet position. The second of eight children born to a poor household in Texas, Gonzales graduated from Harvard Law School in 1982 and subsequently became a partner in the state's most powerful law firm.
After Bush was elected governor in 1994, he appointed Gonzales as his general counsel, then secretary of state, and finally, in 1999, to the Texas Supreme Court where he was regarded as a moderate conservative jurist. In 2001, Bush asked him to join him as White House Counsel.
It was in that role that he prepared or approved a number of legal opinions about the conduct of the war on terrorism, and particularly the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists, that have provoked considerable controversy--and embarrassment--both here and abroad since the Abu Ghraib photos reached the public domain.
The most controversial documents include: the November 2001 order establishing military commissions that would have allowed suspected terrorists apprehended by the U.S. to be secretly charged, tried, and even executed without the most basic due process protections; a February 2001 opinion that the president has the constitutional authority to deny protections of the Geneva Conventions--some of whose provisions, Gonzales argued, were "obsolete" or "quaint"--to suspected terrorist detainees; and, an August 2002 Justice Department memo that contended that the President has "commander-in-chief authority" to order torture and proposed potential legal defense for U.S. officials accused of torture.
All of these positions were reportedly opposed by the State Department and career military attorneys who argued that taking such radical measures were not only unnecessary and illegal under U.S. law, but they also threaten to undermine the ethical standards and morale of the armed forces, and posed serious risks to U.S. soldiers captured by enemy forces.
These points were made forcefully in a letter sent to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who will be conducting Gonzales' confirmation hearings, by 12 former U.S. generals and admirals, most of whom served in top legal or juridical posts.
"During his tenure as White House Counsel, Mr. Gonzales appears to have played a significant role in shaping U.S. detention and interrogation operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere," they wrote.
"Today, it is clear that these operations have fostered greater animosity toward the United States, undermined our intelligence gathering efforts, and added to the risks our troops face around the world. Before Mr. Gonzales assumes the position of Attorney General, it is critical to understand whether he intends to adhere to the positions he adopted as White House Counsel, or chart a revised course more consistent with fulfilling our nation's complex security interests, and maintaining a military that operates within the rule of law," the retired officers--including former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili--wrote.
At a press conference Tuesday, Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, who served as Commander of the U.S. Central Command during the first Gulf War, charged that Gonzales' recommendations as White House Counsel "show no respect for decades of military judgments about the importance of the Geneva Conventions and the rules of interrogation. His opinions, and the actions that followed not only put our troops at risk, they put our nation's honor at risk."
HRF's Massimino noted that the Justice Department's August 2002 memo on torture was explicitly repudiated just last Thursday and urged that Gonzales be questioned intensively about why he had initially endorsed the memo and whether he now agreed with its repudiation.
She also called on the Judiciary Committee to seek clarification from Gonzales on whether he stood by the position that the president's commander-in-chief authority-- which she described as "the most explosive" issue raised in that memo--permitted him to override U.S. law and the Constitution, as the memo had asserted. While the definition of impermissible torture was broadened in the latest memo, it finessed the question of the president's commander-in-chief powers by simply insisting that Bush had banned torture.
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