General Gonzales (and Ashcroft's achievements)

Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Wall Street Journal

President Bush offered the first indication of what his second term will look like Wednesday by nominating Alberto Gonzales -- his close friend and current White House counsel -- to succeed John Ashcroft as attorney general. The message would seem to be policy continuity, with a kinder, gentler public face.

We'll return to Mr. Gonzales in a moment, but first some words about Mr. Ashcroft and his tumultuous tenure. He will go down in history as the attorney general who led the legal fight against terrorism. Every wartime AG has had to make tough calls about the balance between civil liberties and national security, and in a better world Mr. Ashcroft would be retiring to bipartisan accolades for taking on these difficult issues. There have been no more attacks on U.S. soil, and everyone agrees that the Justice Department and FBI have shed the law-enforcement-only blinkers they wore prior to 9-11.

Yet no one in this administration has endured more personal and political abuse. Granted Mr. Ashcroft isn't the smoothest public spokesman, and his cultural conservatism and strict interpretations of the law on the death penalty, partial-birth abortion and sentencing guidelines incensed liberals. Every President needs a flak-catcher, and Mr. Ashcroft has been Mr. Bush's.

The irony is that he was in fact the administration's leading advocate for using the criminal justice system to prosecute terrorists; he never did like military commissions and Guantanamo. And under his guidance, Justice racked up a long line of antiterror arrests, convictions and favorable judicial decisions. Zacarias Moussaoui is one exception (and it's too soon to tell how that will turn out), but John Walker Lindh, members of the Lackawanna and Seattle cells and many others are behind bars. We'd count last June's Hamdi decision as a victory, too, since the Supreme Court upheld the President's authority to detain enemy combatants.

Mr. Ashcroft's signature achievement is helping tear down the pre-Patriot Act "wall" that prevented communication between intelligence agents and criminal investigators. This wall, Mr. Ashcroft told the 9-11 Commission, meant "the old national intelligence system in place on September 11 was destined to fail." The former Senator showed guts by fighting back when that politicized Commission tried to rewrite the history of the wall, and he showed political shrewdness by releasing relevant documents at the precise moment they could have the greatest educational impact.

On Mr. Ashcroft's watch, Justice has also had a respectable record in fighting corporate crime -- that is, by holding individuals responsible, rather than attacking business as a class in the fashion of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The Enron task force has posted more than 30 indictments, including long sentences for the central culprits. On the negative side, the Ashcroft Department continued with some ill-conceived Clinton-era suits, such as the one against tobacco companies. His Antitrust Division has also gone downhill since the Microsoft settlement.

Mr. Gonzales has many things going for him, not least his relationship with the President, whom he has served for more than a decade starting in Texas. These personal ties -- much like those between Californians Ed Meese and Ronald Reagan -- will give him a stronger influence in the Cabinet than Mr. Ashcroft had.

But his job will nonetheless be to build on the Ashcroft legacy. That includes moving ahead with terror cases, riding hard on the FBI as it reshapes itself to fight terrorists, and working for the renewal of the Patriot Act, portions of which expire next year. On the latter, Mr. Gonzales may well be a better public spokesman than the polarizing Mr. Ashcroft.

The sticking point in what is otherwise likely to be an easy confirmation battle will be the "torture memos" bearing Mr. Gonzales's signature. In the heat of the Presidential campaign, the media connected this legitimate internal legal discussion on the Geneva Convention to the abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib. The ACLU, People For the American Way and other liberal interest groups are already hitting this allegedly "troubling" record and gearing up for a fight. The Center for American Progress, financed in part by George Soros, says it has "grave doubts" about his nomination.

But Democrats may not have the same appetite for renewed combat. Senator Charles Schumer said yesterday "he's a better candidate than John Ashcroft," which for him is an act of bipartisanship. Senate conservatives who distrust Mr. Gonzales on core social issues will support him as AG as a better destination than the Supreme Court.

One final thought on the Ashcroft era. It's difficult to recall now, but Mr. Ashcroft inherited a Justice Department that was damaged -- some thought permanently -- after eight years of Janet Reno, conflicts with the FBI, and loose-with-the-law Clinton appointees. Above all, he deserves credit for restoring credibility to his department and integrity to his office.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: