Gonzales is confirmed as first Hispanic attorney general

Vote of 60-36 reflects torture-memo debate

February 04, 2005|By Andrew Zajac | Andrew Zajac,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Alberto R. Gonzales was confirmed by the Senate as the nation's first Hispanic attorney general yesterday after contentious debate in which his controversial role as a legal architect of the Bush administration's policy toward suspected terrorists overshadowed his rags-to-riches life story.

Gonzales was approved on a 60-36 vote, with all of the "no" votes coming from Democrats, plus the Senate's lone independent. Maryland Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski were among the Democrats who voted no.

Vice President Dick Cheney later swore in Gonzales in a private ceremony at the White House, according to a White House spokeswoman.

Several Democrats spoke out sharply against Gonzales, 49, for his role in crafting a pair of memos in 2002 that critics say laid the foundation for a wide-ranging series of abuses, including torture of suspects detained in the war on terror.

Gonzales "was at the center of an overly aggressive legal framework for the interrogation of detainees" in which torture "was either permitted or perceived to be permitted," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat.

Levin and other Democrats pointed to a January 2002 memo written by Gonzales as White House counsel in which he argued that the Geneva Conventions setting standards for the humane treatment of prisoners did not necessarily apply to al-Qaida or Taliban detainees.

Gonzales also commissioned a since-repudiated Justice Department memo stating that harsh treatment of prisoners did not meet the definition of torture unless it caused pain equivalent to organ failure or death.

Republican senators complained that Democrats were making Gonzales a fall guy for legal opinions written by Justice Department lawyers and for interrogation policies devised by the Defense Department.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, noted that Gonzales in his Senate confirmation hearing last month rejected the use of torture.

Hatch and other Republicans repeatedly tried to bring attention back to Gonzales' background as the son of immigrant Mexican laborers, who went to Harvard Law School and became a successful corporate lawyer and, later, Bush's White House attorney.

Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, a Cuban immigrant, underscored the significance of Gonzales' achievements by beginning his speech Wednesday in support of the nomination with several sentences in Spanish, saying Gonzales is "one of us" and "represents all of our hopes and dreams."

In doing so, Martinez apparently became the first senator to speak from the floor in a language other than English, according to assistant Senate historian Betty Koed.

Another Republican senator, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, charged that opposition to Gonzales was rooted in anger that a one-time solidly Democratic voting bloc is starting to defect to the GOP.

For many Democrats, though, Gonzales' feel-good personal story wasn't enough to overcome reservations about his past judgment and independence from the White House in his new position.

In a speech Tuesday on the floor of the Senate, Mikulski had said she did not want an attorney general who would "play politics with the law, play politics with the court, and just play politics with international conventions designed to protect our troops."

Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat and the Senate's lone black member, said he "wanted to give Alberto Gonzales the benefit of the doubt" because his life story is "inspiring." But Obama voted against Gonzales because "Mr. Gonzales has raised serious doubts about whether, given the choice between the Constitution and the president's political agenda, he would put our Constitution first."

Gonzales succeeds John Ashcroft, who also had problems getting confirmed, winning confirmation on a 58-42 vote in 2001.

Among opponents of Gonzales were a dozen retired senior military officers who took the highly unusual step of publicly speaking out against him because of his role in the torture memos.

One of them, retired Rear Adm. John Hutson, testified against Gonzales in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings last month. Hutson said Gonzales failed to consider the impact on U.S. military personnel if they have to either carry out or live under the harsh policies that the documents seemed to justify.

"The strongest nation on Earth can ill afford an attorney general who engages in sloppy, shortsighted legal analysis or who doesn't object when others do," Hutson said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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