Former attorney general Alberto Gonzales was vilified for sanctioning torture, endorsing domestic spying, playing politics with the Department of Justice, and for giving one of the most evasive testimonies in Senate history. Since leaving Washington, no other member of the Bush administration has been as thoroughly ostracized. Does he deserve it?
UPDATE:The Department of Justice has dropped its investigation of former attorney general Alberto Gonzales regarding the firings of nine U.S. attorneys on political grounds.—July 22, 2010
On May 1, 2010, a Pakistani-born American citizen named Faisal Shahzad drove a dark-green Nissan Pathfinder rigged with explosives into Times Square. He parked near Minskoff Theatre, which would soon be packed with children eager to see The Lion King, and then abandoned his vehicle, slipping away virtually unseen. He left the engine running and the car interior smoldering, hoping to murder hundreds of people.
Luckily, Shahzad’s handiwork was discovered, and he was arrested and pulled off an Emirates jet bound for Dubai. As news reports out of New York quickly rekindled memories of 9/11, TV pundits across the nation began heatedly debating the nature of terrorism and the government’s response. That the failed attack had taken place within the same six-month window as two other unsettling events—the shootings at Fort Hood last November by Nidal Malik Hasan and the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to set off a bomb on a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Day—was even more disturbing. In a press conference a few days later, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called it “a stark reminder of the reality that we face.”
The same night that Shahzad was executing his plan, Holder’s predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales, was having a quiet dinner with his wife, Rebecca, at a Ruby Tequila’s in Lubbock. The former attorney general didn’t learn about the incident until the next morning, when he turned on the Sunday talk shows. Watching TV at home, Gonzales felt his skepticism kick in. He knew from his days in Washington that early reports of terrorist incidents were often inaccurate, and he winced when he heard the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, describe the Times Square attempt as a one-off. Gonzales also felt impatient with reporters who were surprised that the work might be that of a homegrown terrorist. He had been expecting this for years; it was inevitable in an open society. He wondered too what we did not know—he still used the word “we,” even though he was out of government—and mused on what we could do under the Constitution to collect information.
“Listen, we’re in a war, and the only way to win a war is to be tough,” he would tell me several weeks later, noting that the Obama administration has continued many of the policies he gave legal blessing to, both as White House counsel and as AG under George W. Bush. “Everyone is learning that to be successful in this environment, you have to go to the limit of what the Constitution allows.”
If there was a note of vindication in his voice, he could be forgiven. It is hard to recall a public official in modern times who has been as vilified as Gonzales: He’s remembered, rightly or wrongly, as the man who labeled the Geneva Conventions “quaint” and who said that nothing in the Constitution expressly guaranteed the right of habeas corpus to U.S. citizens. He presided over a time when there appeared to be unprecedented attempts to limit civil rights and expand presidential power. He is said to have sanctioned the likes of waterboarding and fired U.S. attorneys for their lack of loyalty to Bush’s cause. He was the subject of three inspector general reports. “I’m not sure there’s anyone who’s been investigated as much as me with no finding of wrongdoing,” Gonzales told me.
Still, “resigned in disgrace” is in the fifth sentence of his Wikipedia entry. The right thinks he’s a marshmallow, the left thinks he’s a war criminal, and many Latinos think he’s an embarrassment to his own people. None of this criticism surprises Gonzales, who has developed a sanguine view of his reputation. “Either I had little to do with the development of policies because I was weak and not bright,” he wrote to me in an e-mail, “or I was a brilliant mastermind responsible for everything controversial, and able to manipulate the entire executive branch to give the President what he wanted.”
Whatever the reasons, Gonzales can hardly be considered a winner in the former administration’s Where Are They Now annals. Bush is completing his memoirs, for which he is rumored to have received an advance of about $7 million. Karl Rove? On top of the $1.5 million he received for his memoirs, he’s bloviating as a Fox News contributor. Dick Cheney got a book deal too, for a reported $2 million, and remains a hero to the right. Former aide Karen Hughes? Global vice chair with the PR firm Burson-Marsteller. Harriet Miers, the near-miss Supreme Court nominee? She’s a partner with the Dallas law firm Locke, Lord, Bissell & Liddell, where she has served as a lobbyist for the Embassy of Pakistan, a $900,000-a-year contract for the firm. John Yoo, the author of the so-called torture memos? He’s teaching law at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute—and has done so well as to trounce Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.
In contrast, Gonzales can boast two offices at Texas Tech University, where he is a diversity recruiter and a visiting professor, teaching a political science course titled Contemporary Issues in the Executive Branch to fifteen students for an annual salary of about $100,000. And while it’s true that he’s popular with his students (“One of the best classes I’ve had at Tech,” one told me), who write papers on topics like the “disposition of detainees,” it’s also true that when Texas Tech chancellor Kent Hance threw him a lifeline last year, Gonzales was pretty much out of options. He had become a pariah in Washington, where people did their best to avoid him, and his consulting business was going nowhere. His old law firm, Vinson & Elkins, had told him it wasn’t the right time to take him back. And though he was shopping a memoir, he had yet to find a publisher (he’s writing it anyway—for his sons, he told me).
Yet as we come upon Barack Obama’s midterm, it is also inescapable that most of the government policies that were pilloried during the Bush years have been continued by the current president, albeit in a less bullying way. The prison at Guantánamo Bay might eventually be closed, but loopholes in the habeas corpus rules remain, keeping detainees imprisoned without trial, even if they find themselves locked up in Cincinnati. Obama suspended military commissions to try detainees, but then he brought them back. Extraordinary renditions—in which suspected terrorists are shipped to other countries for questioning—continue, as do secret prisons, on a smaller scale. As observers everywhere, from the New Republic to the American Spectator, have noted, most of Bush’s anti-terror policies remain in place today, largely because, well, they seem to have prevented further attacks.
Which in turn raises some questions: If the policies the former attorney general helped put in place have been adopted so readily, how come he has been so soundly rejected? Is he himself to blame or is he simply a convenient scapegoat? Why, when so many of the other members of the Bush squad have been able to parlay their experience into lucrative, high-profile posts, has Alberto Gonzales ended up in exile on the High Plains?
One evening, Gonzales and I met at Ruby Tequila’s to go over his Wikipedia entry. He wore pressed jeans and a royal-blue Hawaiian shirt buttoned over a white T-shirt. A small man with thick, ink-black hair he wears in a modified pompadour, Gonzales has a boyish face and can look ten, at times even twenty, years younger than his 54 years. He speaks with an almost obsessive precision, like a man who has been frequently misquoted and misinterpreted. Maybe because he doesn’t carry himself in the way of self-important men, Gonzales often passes through Lubbock unrecognized. I myself didn’t recognize him at first, and neither did anyone else in the restaurant. By way of greeting, he gave me one of his bright, ephemeral smiles.
I had gone to Wikipedia for a rough time line, but Gonzales was appalled by the errors he found there and wanted to be sure I took note of them. “Before I went to Washington, I had an incredible career, and it’s as if all that means nothing,” he told me. Until he started working on his book, he had read virtually nothing written about himself—not Bill Minutaglio’s biography The President’s Counselor or Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side, in which he is described by one source as “an empty suit.” In advance of our meeting, Gonzales had marked up a copy of the Wiki entry with a felt-tip pen. Hunched over it now, in deep concentration and with a Diet Coke at the ready, he could have been an attorney furiously trying to defend a client, which, in a sense, he was. Gonzales does not evince much anger at having been, to his mind, misunderstood. “If you don’t define yourself, other people will define you,” he’d told me philosophically in our first conversation. But he didn’t have much tolerance for language that was anything but precise. When I mentioned torture memos, he interrupted me to ask which torture memos I was referring to.
“This is wrong,” Gonzales mumbled to himself as he continued to study the bio. When he got to a section about his extensive work for Enron, he said, “This is just BS.” (He had a point—Gonzales had worked with Ken Lay doing only pro bono work on, for example, a 1990 economic summit.) When I asked about what Wikipedia said was his pro-choice stance, I was interrupted with “I have never said I was pro-choice,” emphasizing the “I” as if it were all that mattered. I realized something crucial then about Gonzales: For much of his life, he had honestly believed that if he expressed nothing publicly about an issue, he could keep people from knowing who he was and what he believed.
This fierce reserve comes naturally. “My father was extremely quiet and hard to get to know,” Gonzales told me. “And my mom is also reserved. They were very humble people.” Pablo and Maria Gonzales were also bitterly poor, raising eight children in Humble on the pittance Pablo made as a construction worker. Alberto, the eldest son, never invited friends to visit the tiny home his father had built by hand. When Pablo came home at night in one of his alcoholic rages, Alberto would block out the sound by putting a pillow over his head.
His views of the world were severely limited but therefore profound: At age twelve, a friend’s father got him a job selling refreshments at the Rice University stadium, where, after football games, he watched as students returned to the leafy campus. “If that hadn’t happened, I would have had no dreams,” he told me. Without anyone to tell him he should apply for college scholarships, he joined the Air Force, eventually ending up at the Air Force Academy. He spent two years there before transferring to the school of his dreams, Rice.
A summer job with an old-line law firm inspired him to apply to law school at Harvard and Yale, and both accepted him. After attending Harvard, his trajectory was smooth and speedy: In 1982 he joined Vinson & Elkins, Houston’s most powerful law firm, and in the early nineties he became one of only two minority partners. He assimilated rapidly, dispensing with any Spanish he might have spoken in the past. He knew how treacherous this new world was; in speeches, he has recalled learning Texas history as a child and realizing all the heroes were Anglo. “I wanted to be one of the good guys, but I looked like one of the bad guys,” he says.
It was while he was at V&E that he also became a Republican. “I was surrounded by Republicans, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can do some good here,’” he told me. Technically, Gonzales worked in the business, real estate, and energy divisions—he’s remembered as more of a worker bee than a killer bee—but his most important function may have been to give the firm a more diverse complexion. He seemed at the time to be a member of every local Latino organization and was the prominent Latino member of countless civic groups. During that period, he also encountered George W. Bush, who was then running for governor. “I remember liking him,” Gonzales told me, “and thinking he had no chance of beating Ann Richards.”
The relationship between Bush and the man he called “Fredo” might be best described as one in which two people with opposing styles form a deep and mutually advantageous bond. Gonzales was taciturn and introverted. Bush was volatile and never met a stranger. Gonzales was the son of an alcoholic—responsible, eager to please, an expert at keeping secrets. Bush had had his battles with the bottle. Gonzales was precise; no one believed more that God was in the details. Bush wanted the big picture. When the newly elected governor hired Gonzales to be his general counsel in 1995, the tenor of their relationship was set for decades to come. It wouldn’t hurt that Gonzales, through canny lawyering, kept Bush’s 1976 drunk-driving arrest from becoming public when the governor was called for jury duty in 1996. “He didn’t want his daughters to find out that way,” Gonzales told me.
In 1998, when Bush was running for reelection and courting the Latino vote, he promoted Gonzales to Secretary of State, a job Gonzales held for about a year, until Bush appointed him to a seat on the Texas Supreme Court. When Bush won the savagely contested 2000 presidential election, it was only natural that he would take Gonzales to Washington, appointing him White House counsel. “He wanted people around him who he had confidence in,” Gonzales told me, “and I think he really appreciated my story.” Gonzales was just where he wanted to be: in an influential but secretive job, with the most powerful client on earth. “It was a tremendous time. Everyone was so optimistic and so hopeful,” he recalled.
Not that he wasn’t a little worried about going to Washington. The days of living high as a corporate lawyer were long gone. Gonzales had a wife and three children to support on a $150,000 government salary, which was not going to go far in D.C. (He’d married Rebecca Turner, a vivacious blonde, in 1991 after a failed first marriage; they had a son from her first marriage and two of their own.) Then there were the partisan politics. “Al is a gentleman,” says Texas Tech chancellor Hance, who had known Gonzales for years before hiring him at the university. “It was hard for me to think he was going to enjoy the vicious fighting that goes on in Washington. Phil Gramm and Jim Mattox love a fight, but that’s not Al’s personality.” Still, Gonzales was eager—“When the president asks you to serve, you say yes,” he told me—and to make up for his unfamiliarity with the turf, he acquainted himself with the Federalist Society, joined the right Episcopalian church, and staffed his office with blue-chip, deeply conservative Washington hands, a group that was hailed by Republicans as a “GOP dream team.”
Gonzales got to work at six in the morning and left anywhere between seven and nine at night. He loved every minute of it. He understood and supported Bush and Cheney’s desire to reclaim the presidential power they believed had been squandered by previous administrations; Gonzales frequently said his job was “to protect the presidency” from legal challenges to that authority. And in the beginning, success came easily, despite Democratic grumbling: Congress approved almost all of Bush’s judicial appointees. If Gonzales was a mystery to seasoned White House staffers—they couldn’t decide whether his silences masked a Zen-like confidence or a Chauncey Gardiner—like vacuity—everyone knew unequivocally that he had the president’s trust. In early power skirmishes with Attorney General John Ashcroft, for instance, Gonzales almost always came out the victor.
People who had known Gonzales as a bipartisan moderate in Austin noted that he was now taking harder political lines (fighting to keep presidential papers private, for instance) and becoming a “true believer,” the term for those who were tough—the highest administration encomium. Recalls Julie Mason, who covered the White House for the Houston Chronicle during that time: “Bush had such a way of bringing people who were softer or weaker into his thrall. So Alberto always got the arm-around and the nickname and the funny stuff that made people feel really important in Washington.”
I asked Gonzales that night at Ruby Tequila’s how often he’d disagreed with the president, and he said, as he had said before, that those times had been rare. They would become even rarer after the planes came, on September 11, 2001.
There is no way to properly describe the oppressive, unrelenting pressure that engulfed the White House in the wake of the disastrous attacks. No one knew how imminent another assault might be; there was no playbook for responding to an enemy whose tools included cell phones, the Internet, and jumbo jetliners. “Don’t let this happen again,” Bush is said to have told Ashcroft in the aftermath, and that order, for a while, was all that mattered.
When I asked Gonzales whether he was frightened during those days, he took issue with my word choice. “I knew this was serious,” he said. “We were very worried. We had a job to do, and you can’t do that job if you are scared.” He still keeps, in a scrapbook, an airline ticket receipt from 9/11; he had flown out of Dulles that day for a speech and wonders whether he was in the airport at the same time as the terrorists.
The Bush administration faced two challenges: keeping Americans safe from another attack and doing so legally. Long-standing international agreements—such as the Geneva Conventions, established in 1949—outlined the treatment of prisoners of war, and the White House, determined to be aggressive with the enemy, worried that any misstep with suspected or captured Al Qaeda operatives would leave it open to prosecution for war crimes. There were also, since the Nixon administration, myriad restrictions on government spying. Explaining the exact parameters of the president’s reach fell, in large part, to Gonzales. Unfortunately, his background as a business attorney and as a judge wasn’t much help—“I had little experience with the Geneva Conventions,” he told me—so he relied on his Washington staff and the Office of Legal Counsel. (Little known outside government, the OLC is an arm of the Department of Justice that essentially serves as the president’s law firm, issuing binding legal opinions on what the executive branch can and cannot do.)
Very soon after 9/11, Gonzales began convening a group in his West Wing office that came to be known as the “war council.” The group’s stated purpose was to analyze and provide advice on legal issues in the fight on terror, and members included Gonzales’s deputy Tim Flanigan, who had once led the OLC; David Addington, who was Cheney’s legal counsel; and assorted lawyers from the Justice Department and other branches of the government.
This circle was easily the most hawkish and aggressive within the administration. The caustic, imposing Addington, who as a longtime Washington hand knew more about presidential wartime power, the Constitution, and Capitol bureaucracy than just about anyone in government, set the tone with his contempt for those who advised caution, or were soft. He was, like Cheney, not interested in opposing opinions, and members of the State Department or Congress were excluded from meetings. This fact is now often cited by critics as evidence of the administration’s “go it alone” strategy, but Gonzales insists these meetings were far more ad hoc than is often described. He never saw a reason to expand the council’s membership, he says, because the discussions were about law, not policy. “We weren’t debating what our foreign allies thought about policy but what the Constitution required of this administration,” he told me. “Would it have been nice to invite everyone to these meetings? Sure, but it just doesn’t work that way. Were there times others should have been invited? I have to concede it may have been helpful, but we did the best we could under the circumstances.”
As the fall progressed, the war council would debate the applications of the Geneva Conventions and habeas corpus, the use of military tribunals for the growing number of detainees being rounded up in Afghanistan (unlike criminal trials, tribunals have no civilian juries and require only a two-thirds majority to reach a verdict), and, starting in 2002, the use of a new facility at Guantánamo. (Discussions involving a domestic spying program took place in a smaller, more select group, and decisions on secret prisons in other countries, known as “black sites,” more directly involved the CIA.)
In their meetings, it was Addington who usually held forth, while Gonzales remained silent. “People knew I had the president’s ear, so I would mostly just ask questions and listen,” Gonzales told me. “By virtue of my training and my work as general counsel for Governor Bush, that’s the way I received information.” He rarely announced a decision in those gatherings: “I would take the information and go talk to the president.” According to several published accounts, he was the group’s salesman, though he doesn’t see it that way. He told me he liked to catch Bush early in the morning for casual talks, where he would relate the council’s conclusions when appropriate and leave it at that. If Bush asked what he thought about policy, Gonzales would tell him. “But I made it clear it was my opinion,” Gonzales said. In general, Bush wanted a quick legal read. As he told Gonzales countless times—not always nicely, most likely—“I was elected to decide policy. You tell me what the law is.”
Gonzales knows that detractors compare his written opinions on war detainees to the much-criticized memos reviewing clemency requests that he wrote for Bush as general counsel in Austin. Back then, his habit was to give Bush—after several informal discussions—short, prosecutor-friendly accounts that glossed over extenuating circumstances. “I provided facts to the president in the form he was most comfortable with to make an informed decision,” Gonzales told me. “On the clemency memos, we had a procedure for the way he wanted information, and that continued in the White House.”
The only person in the administration who knew as much about presidential wartime powers as Addington was a young legal scholar from Berkeley named John Yoo, who was the deputy assistant attorney general in the OLC. A product of Harvard and Yale Law, Yoo was a whiz kid whose conservative bona fides—he’d clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas—were indisputable. Within weeks of the attacks, Gonzales was asking Yoo for memos outlining the limits of the Geneva Conventions. Yoo was generous: Since Al Qaeda and the Taliban militia did not constitute a nation or a state, he concluded, they had no protections.
Subsequently, Gonzales drafted a memo to Bush dated January 25, 2002. (Gonzales now says that Addington was a contributor, and many believe he was the primary author.) “As you have said,” the document stated, “the war against terrorism is a new kind of war . . . in my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning enemy prisoners.” Precedent, in other words, could be dispatched in an unprecedented war. One had only to look at certain amenities guaranteed by the conventions to appreciate how dated they were: Benefits such as commissary privileges and athletic uniforms, the memo stated, were “quaint.” And if the memo was correct and the Geneva Conventions did not apply, then there would be no war crimes to prosecute either.
Still somewhat naive in the ways of Washington, Gonzales then circulated the draft because, he told me, he wanted to solicit other opinions. The next day, portions of the memo appeared on the front page of the conservative Washington Times. It had supposedly been leaked to embarrass Secretary of State Colin Powell and his weak diplomatic approach, but the more lasting result was that it introduced Gonzales to the world as a proponent of torture. Gonzales is still angry today when he recalls that the memo was truncated and taken out of context by reporters, though he’s never disagreed with its contents. “I’d find it hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t have doubts on these issues. You struggle to find the right answer,” he told me. “Sometimes I pressed and prodded, and I worried about how it would affect the president’s legacy.” Gonzales is not swayed by criticism that while the administration’s acts may have been perfectly legal, they were also immoral. “At the end of the day, our morality is reflected in our laws. If we go by my morals and my values, why not those of the lawyer next to me? I worry about this notion that lawyers have an obligation to do what’s morally right irrespective of a statute. What’s morally right is supposed to be reflected in the laws passed by Congress.”
The policies set in motion by the war council meetings would have far-reaching effects. On March 28, 2002, the first “high-value detainee,” Abu Zubaydah, was captured. Zubaydah, a prominent member of Al Qaeda, was caught thanks mainly to about $10 million in bribes, but once he was in custody, FBI and CIA interrogators didn’t know what they could legally do to him to extract information. The council went back to Yoo, asking him to research how much pressure could lawfully be applied during questioning, and Yoo replied with the now infamous but then-secret memo redefining torture. Maybe torture wasn’t torture, he wrote, unless it was “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” He concluded: “There is a significant range of acts that though they might constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment fail to rise to the level of torture.” Torture was legal, believed Yoo, just because the president had the wartime power to authorize it.
It wasn’t long before military personnel began circulating rumors of abuse—hooding, sexual humiliation, beatings, and, of course, waterboarding—at Guantánamo and other prisons. In September 2002 a group of administration officials took a one-day tour of three detainee prisons to see for themselves. Addington and Gonzales went along, as did the well-regarded conservative legal scholar Jack Goldsmith, who was then the special counsel of the Department of Defense. Touring a crumbling naval brig in Norfolk, Virginia, Goldsmith had a bad moment. At the end of a gloomy corridor, standing before a closed-circuit black and white television, he watched a prisoner sleeping in the fetal position. It was Yaser Hamdi, an American of Saudi descent who had been picked up in an Afghanistan sweep. Hamdi had been in isolation without due process for six months. “It seemed unnecessarily extreme to hold a twenty-two-year-old foot soldier in a remote wing of a rundown prison in a tiny cell, isolated from almost all human contact and with no access to a lawyer,” Goldsmith later wrote in his 2007 memoir, The Terror Presidency. “This is what habeas corpus is for.”
When I asked Gonzales whether he ever had doubts about prisoner treatment, he responded in legalese on the rights of detainees. “I don’t believe the U.S. should detain anyone who is not an enemy combatant. But we all have to recognize that there are limits on habeas corpus for foreign terrorists.” He also thought the facilities at Guantánamo had improved with each of his three visits. “I suspect they got better medical treatment and food than they did in Afghanistan,” he told me.
In March 2003 Yoo sent out another crucial memo, this time exploring the limits of prisoner interrogation. He concluded that military interrogators were not subject to federal laws prohibiting assault, maiming, or other uses of force during questioning because the end goal was “to prevent further attacks on the United States.” The memo suggested that acts like dousing prisoners with scalding water, corrosive acid, or caustic substances; slitting an ear, nose, or lip; or disabling a tongue or limb were not criminal.
It was the following year, after the public learned through one of Yoo’s leaked memos that the government had freed itself from the constraints of the Geneva Conventions, that something far more troubling hit the airwaves: Stories of torture, rape, sodomy, and beatings in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison appeared on 60 Minutes II and in the New Yorker. “This is going to kill us,” Gonzales told Goldsmith, who had by then become the head of the OLC. To Gonzales, Abu Ghraib was not, as critics would charge, the logical outcome of the administration’s permissive view of “enhanced interrogation.” He told me that he lamented it as the “despicable conduct” of a few “knuckleheads.” When the news broke, he worried that people would think prisoner abuse was part of White House policy, which, in fact, many people did. “We had worked very hard to do what was right,” he told me, “and now everyone would assume this was a by-product of what had been authorized.”
On the unseasonably cold day we met in his office this spring, Gonzales wore a black fleece vest featuring a patch from the Federal Bureau of Prisons—a gift, he told me, from its director at the time. Gonzales’s first-floor space in Texas Tech’s administration building was spotless and his desk was clear, and the room was a shrine to his years of government service: certificates, presidential commissions, a flag that flew in Iraq, a faux ray gun from George Lucas (“May the force be with you,” Lucas wrote), and a framed drawing done by his then-eight-year-old son Graham with a phone number and the statement “Come home, Daddy.”
But in 2004 Gonzales couldn’t go home. As Bush’s reelection campaign approached, many in the White House began to depart, sensing it was time to cash out. Gonzales considered leaving too; he was rumored to be a Supreme Court candidate, and he thought he should make some money before rejoining public service for the rest of his life. Bush, however, wanted him to stay. You’ll be able to make millions when you go, he assured Gonzales. I need you here. And so Gonzales stayed, and a grateful president nominated him for attorney general. “Get your uniform on. You are going in,” Bush said to him the day after Ashcroft submitted his resignation.
For Bush, appointing Gonzales had several advantages. His calm, deliberate manner would be a relief after Ashcroft’s cantankerousness. Gonzales would also be, of course, the first Latino in a high-profile Cabinet position—courtesy of a Republican administration. (At a press conference, Bush reminded his listeners of how Gonzales had grown up “in a two-bedroom house in Texas with his parents and seven siblings.”) Though Gonzales had no direct experience in law enforcement, the president had every confidence in him. There was, of course, a more cynical interpretation. “Bush is very smart and meaner than people think,” Chronicle journalist Mason told me. “He knew if he put Gonzales over at the Justice Department, he would get everything he wanted.”
Democrats knew that Gonzales’s confirmation was a fait accompli, but fresh from John Kerry’s defeat, they were in no mood to roll over. The Republicans used endorsements from Latino leaders like Henry Cisneros to silence opposition, but during the hearings, in his transition from inside man to public official, Gonzales did not display much skill in answering charges that he was an enemy of American ideals. The occasion called for a grandstander, and he responded like a contracts lawyer. Asked about the president’s power to override and immunize acts of torture, for instance, Gonzales responded, “That is a hypothetical question that would involve an analysis of a great number of factors.” Finally, Senator Joe Biden, who liked Gonzales but was frustrated by his answers, tried to help with a prescient piece of advice: “You are no longer the president’s lawyer,” he told him. “You are the people’s lawyer.”
Gonzales was confirmed in February 2005. Friends and colleagues quietly worried that, as an introvert, he was not well suited for the job—and the trusted staff who had protected and directed him in the White House would not be going with him to the Justice Department. Within two months, his credibility had begun to slip, as he insisted publicly that there had “not been one verified case of civil liberties abuse” as a consequence of expanded FBI powers under the Patriot Act. In fact, there had been at least six. Then, in December 2005, he found himself caught in a public uproar: A New York Times article revealed the existence of a government domestic spying program, whose legal justification Gonzales had helped develop as White House counsel. Though the Department of Justice quickly responded with a 42-page defense, this merely served to confirm doubts about the attorney general’s ability to act independently of the White House.
Fears that Gonzales was incapable of resisting Bush’s influence would come to a head in May 2007, when Ashcroft’s former deputy, James Comey, was called to testify before a Senate committee and made reference to the domestic spying program and Gonzales’s long-standing relationship to it. (Comey never actually described the program, saying it was highly classified, but many observers assumed it was the one leaked by the New York Times.) The administration was blindsided when Comey told a story from 2004, when Gonzales was still White House counsel. The program, recounted Comey, had been up for renewal on March 11. It needed to be certified by the Department of Justice, but a week before it was set to expire, he and Ashcroft refused to renew it, based on Goldsmith’s advice that there was no legal basis for going forward. (Goldsmith, as head of the OLC, had been advocating revisions of many of Yoo’s contributions, to much resistance.)
Then, with the clock on the program ticking, Ashcroft fell suddenly and critically ill with pancreatitis. Impatient, Cheney called a meeting of high-ranking congressional leaders, a move viewed by some within the Justice Department as an attempt to circumvent Ashcroft. (Comey, acting as attorney general in Ashcroft’s absence, was not invited to the meeting, for instance.) Gonzales would later testify that eight congressional leaders agreed to green-light the program, even though the Department of Justice would not certify it. (Most of them have contested Gonzales’s account.)
Bush, however, still wanted Ashcroft’s approval—even though he could have gone forward without it—and what followed was an inside-the-Beltway version of Abbott and Costello. The president called Ashcroft’s hospital room and told his wife, Janet, that he was sending two emissaries to the AG’s bedside, despite Ashcroft’s being deathly ill. She, in turn, sent word to Comey, who rushed to the hospital, arriving just before Gonzales and chief of staff Andrew Card. Gonzales, greeting no one in the room but Ashcroft, went straight to the attorney general’s side and told him that congressional leaders wanted the program to carry on. Maybe he would now reauthorize it? The pallid, barely conscious Ashcroft roused himself, furious. He would sign nothing, he snapped. Besides, he wasn’t the attorney general at that moment, he said, pointing to Comey. Gonzales and Card left empty-handed. “I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man,” Comey would later testify.
Over the next few days, all hell broke loose, as Comey and several other influential Justice Department figures, including Goldsmith, planned to resign after learning that Bush had gone ahead and reauthorized the program without the proper approval. Finally, with political disaster on the horizon—and a terrorist bombing having just taken place in Madrid—Bush asked Comey for a meeting, followed by one with FBI director Robert Mueller, who was also threatening to quit (he had rushed to the hospital as well but was not in the room when Gonzales arrived). Bush listened to both men and did an about-face: He would seek the Justice Department’s approval. Comey and others have stated that, until Comey told Bush about his objections, the president did not understand all the legal concerns. Goldsmith, who would quit in frustration a few months later, was subsequently allowed to rework the program to bring it into compliance.
Gonzales has a different version of events. “All of this is set forth in my July 24, 2007, testimony, which everyone chooses to ignore,” he told me in an unusually sharp tone. On the way to the hospital, Gonzales explained, he and Card decided that if Ashcroft wasn’t competent, they would not ask him to sign the reauthorization. As for why he ignored the other people in Ashcroft’s room, he said, “I know some people will find this hard to believe, but when I walked in, I focused solely on Ashcroft.” Furthermore, what took him to the AG’s bedside was not, as has been so widely assumed, the domestic spying program leaked by the New York Times, he said, but rather a separate, highly classified surveillance matter he was not at liberty to discuss. He disputes, therefore, the notion that Bush did not know the program was on shaky legal ground. “Bush did know there was a disagreement about certain intelligence activities, which was why he sent us to the hospital,” he said.
It was true, however, that legal problems with the spying program had been looming for months without Bush’s knowledge. “All of us had worked to resolve it before we took the problem to the president,” Gonzales told me. “You do not take a problem to the president unless only he can solve it. And finally we felt compelled to inform him.” (One source involved in the incident told me off the record that much of the confusion and conflicting testimony that would occur later about U.S. intelligence activities was due to the fact that certain programs were so classified that they were impossible to speak about clearly.)
The political fallout from Comey’s testimony hit Gonzales hardest, and he later tried to mend fences with Ashcroft. “I told him I regretted having to go to the hospital to visit him in his condition, but I also told him that I couldn’t apologize because I had been sent there at the direction of the president,” he explained to me. In a follow-up e-mail, he wrote, “I went at the direction of the president to speak to a man who we believed had approved these activities for two years . . . We did not have sex with an intern and lie about it. We did not commit a burglary for political purposes and then try to cover it up. We did not offer a political job in the administration in order to affect a political race to maintain filibuster-proof control in the Senate. We went for the national security of our country.”
National security didn’t have anything to do with the dismissal of several U.S. attorneys by the Department of Justice in 2006. It was this move that would eventually lead to Gonzales’s downfall. Its seeds were planted in January 2005, when then-deputy chief of staff Karl Rove began asking about replacing various U.S. attorneys in Bush’s second term. Gonzales says he believed then, as he does now, that it was perfectly reasonable to replace attorneys with a change in White House administration. It may have been a little unusual to take action before the attorneys had fulfilled their four-year terms, but Gonzales followed through, delegating the task to his deputy chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and Monica Goodling, the White House liaison to the Justice Department. Both took the work seriously; Sampson recommended retaining “strong U.S. attorneys who have . . . exhibited loyalty to the President and Attorney General.” He also suggested firing those who had “chafed against Administration initiatives.”
In October 2006 Bush told Gonzales that some Republican officials had complained to him that certain U.S. attorneys weren’t investigating their claims of voter fraud by Democrats. Also, Rove was eager to reward one of his protegés with a prosecutor’s position in Arkansas. Ultimately, Sampson targeted seven U.S. attorneys with the support of a spreadsheet outlining the lawyers’ political activities. Goodling seemed to know that Gonzales was not going to be breathing down their necks. “This is the chart that the AG requested,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I’ll show it to him on the plane tomorrow if he’s interested.”
That December, the attorneys were fired. Many of them had been seasoned prosecutors with positive or outstanding job-performance ratings, and they suspected they had been dismissed as punishment for failing to prosecute Democrats for specious reasons or to reward White House favorites with plum jobs. When the Democrats retook Congress after the 2006 elections, the stage was set for a bitter confrontation with the White House. In the spring of 2007, it fell primarily to Gonzales to explain everything to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Friends warned Gonzales that he was being set up for a perjury trap and that he should get his own lawyer. Gonzales demurred. He also failed to do his own investigating, fearing that if he conducted private interviews he would be accused of tampering. (In fact, he was anyway.) Hence, his appearance before the committee was a disaster. Gonzales looked either mendacious or out of touch; he bumbled and parsed his way through, contradicting himself and claiming more than sixty times that he could not recall what had happened. Senator Charles Schumer didn’t even try to conceal his disgust: “There’s long been reason to be concerned about Attorney General Gonzales, given his close connection with the White House,” he said. “He seems to many in this country to embody a disrespect for the rule of law and intolerance of independence at the Justice Department . . . where what the White House wants is more important than what the law requires or what prudence dictates.”
“He got barbecued,” recalls Mason. And from then on, despite one public statement of support from Bush, Gonzales was a dead man walking. At White House functions, he looked devastated. “So many people did worse than him and left with their heads held high and a well-paying job,” Mason says, noting too that though Gonzales was among the most loyal members of the administration, “that loyalty only runs one way. In the end, Bush hung Alberto out to dry.”
Gonzales, of course, doesn’t see it that way. He didn’t want to pass the buck to other members of his staff, so he tried to take the heat alone. During one of our conversations, his face clouded and his brow knit at the recollection, but he said nothing more. He cooperated with the investigation as best he could because he had nothing to hide. “I wanted to reassure the American people and the Congress that as far as I knew, there had been no intentional wrongdoing with respect to the removals,” he said. A 358-page inspector general report that followed found no evidence that Gonzales committed perjury or that he condoned any activities to politicize the department—though it did roast him for being asleep at the wheel.
Gonzales flew down to Crawford in August 2007 to resign. In his mind, he had survived the hearings and tried to stabilize the DOJ. “[But] I asked myself, ‘How could this controversy possibly be good for the president or the department?’â€Š” he told me. He couldn’t stand the thought that he had hurt the man he owed everything to.
Last March, Gonzales and his wife were invited to attend Houston’s Gala on the Green, a fundraiser for the city’s newest downtown park. It was one of those lavish, self-congratulatory local events, and they had been looking forward to it; chandeliers twinkled in the live oaks, and society caterer Jackson Hicks served the same Rio Grande ranch flatiron steak he had produced for Jenna Bush’s wedding. The current and past two mayors showed up, along with many boldface types, including some of the biggest supporters from the Bush days, like Rich and Nancy Kinder and attorney Pat Oxford. Of course, there were also V&E partners in the crowd. But the Gonzaleses felt lost in the sea of famous, florid faces. Old friends—the ones who had once insisted on buying “Al” lunch in exchange for a peek at his West Wing office—could barely be bothered to say hello. The next morning, when I met them over coffee, Rebecca, who tends to carry the emotions for the couple, looked as if she wanted to cry.
This was not the kind of crowd that was likely to snub Gonzales for his stance on waterboarding. To them, he was guilty of a greater sin. “Gonzales embarrassed the firm,” a shrewd observer of the Houston legal scene told me. He’s seen as someone who just wasn’t tough enough to withstand the blood sport that is Washington politics. “He’s not hardwired to attribute malice to others,” former education secretary Margaret Spellings said. It could also be that he remains an outsider, even after all these years. As one of his close White House associates told me, “None of the Republican gray hairs stepped up and defended the judge. He wasn’t from the club. He wasn’t a Washington insider. He wasn’t somebody they’d all known since they were in law school.”
Gonzales believes he was far stronger than he gets credit for. “I did not go to Washington to win over political friends,” he e-mailed me later. “I went to Washington to serve the American people. Our family was willing to sacrifice because we believed in George W. Bush.” If that loyalty, and that sacrifice, are the cause of his current exile, so be it—for now. “I just have faith that all of this will somehow be resolved. When the President of the United States asks you to do something, how do you say no?”
The last time I saw Gonzales was at an awards dinner in late spring for Texas Tech’s Hispanic Student Society. (Gonzales would not let me visit his class because he had already turned down Chancellor Hance and a score of reporters.) The kids were dressed in their best clothes—some in evening wear—while several of the parents were just off the ranch, in jeans and cowboy boots. “You’re the only one here who isn’t a Mexican,” Gonzales cracked, looking around and then at me. “A generation ago, the only way these people would get in the door is if they were working here.”
“I am the son of a Mexican cotton picker and a construction worker who never finished grade school,” he said to the crowd in a speech that night. “Yet I became the attorney general of the United States. We live in a country where dreams do come true.” He stood in shadow as the bright West Texas sun set behind him. He talked about bringing his mother to Washington in 2004, taking her to tour the city’s monuments and to visit the Oval Office to meet Bush. (Gonzales lost his dad in 1982.) “I wanted to show her what I had accomplished because of her sacrifices and those of my father,” he said.
Gonzales urged the students to make a difference, to exploit their talents for others, and to take big risks. “In 1995 many of my friends questioned the wisdom of me leaving a high-paying law partnership to work with a relatively novice politician. I gambled on then–newly elected governor George W. Bush, and I was rewarded with unbelievable opportunities in public service,” he said. He did not mention the disappointments. Maybe they were far from his thoughts.
It was a happy night, and the broad smile on Gonzales’s face reminded me of a moment the day before, when he had proudly shown me a note Bush had sent him right after his resignation. I had hoped to use it in this story, but Gonzales didn’t want me to. “I’m protective of him and our relationship,” he said.