A thinly drawn portrait of a key architect of Bush policy

Review Biography

July 16, 2006|By MICHIKO KAKUTANI | MICHIKO KAKUTANI,NEW YORK TIMES

The President's Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales

Bill Minutaglio

Rayo/HarperCollins / 368 pages / $24.95

Before assuming his current job as attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales was President Bush's White House counsel, and during his four years in that job he worked closely with a small circle of conservative lawyers to help build an expansive - and highly controversial - legal framework for the administration's war on terror. It tried to amplify presidential authority broadly even as it raised troubling questions about due process, violations of international law, and infringements on Americans' civil liberties.

Gonzales worked on a directive that effectively set up an alternative legal system, authorizing the use of military tribunals to prosecute noncitizens accused of terrorism and permitting the detention of detainees for an indefinite period. (The Supreme Court ruled last month that such military commissions were not authorized by federal law and ran afoul of the Geneva Conventions.)

He prepared an executive order that gave presidents expanded powers to keep their White House papers sealed after they left office. He signed a memorandum that stated that the "new paradigm" of the war on terror "renders obsolete" the Geneva Conventions' "strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions." He participated in discussions dealing with the definition of torture that would arguably lay the groundwork for abuses at Abu Ghraib and other American military prisons. And he played an important role in Bush's decision secretly to authorize the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans in search of evidence of terrorist activity, without obtaining a court-approved warrant.

As Bill Minutaglio points out in his new book, The President's Counselor, Gonzales became an architect of these consequential policies (as well as becoming attorney general and a possible Bush nominee to the Supreme Court), without having a lot of background in criminal justice, military justice, or international law, and without having "the diplomatic portfolio to adequately measure what the creation of an all-encompassing tribunal aimed at citizens of other countries might mean for relations between the United States and its allies."

As White House counsel, Minutaglio adds, Gonzales was less than a decade removed from being a "dirt and deals" real estate lawyer in Texas, having worked for the high-profile Houston-based law firm Vinson & Elkins (which represented Enron and Halliburton) before joining the inner circle of Bush, then governor of Texas, as general counsel in 1995.

Minutaglio, a former Texas newspaperman and author of a 1999 biography of George W. Bush, charts Gonzales' swift rise to power: his impoverished childhood as the elder son of migrant workers who settled in the small town of Humble, Texas; his rapid transit from the Air Force to Rice University to Harvard Law School; and his introduction, as a rising star at Vinson & Elkins, into the world of Texas movers and shakers.

Though Minutaglio fleshes out Gonzales' early Texas years with some new details, much of his later narrative leans heavily on others' reporting. On the matter of the clemency memos Gonzales prepared for Bush, then governor, on 57 pending executions, Minutaglio devotes considerable space to the findings of Alan Berlow, who wrote about the subject for The Atlantic Monthly. And on Gonzales' record as White House counsel, he draws extensively from articles published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and The New Yorker.

This volume sheds little new light on the degree to which Gonzales initiated legal strategies emanating from the White House - or simply helped carry out ideas. And the book ends, quite abruptly, with Gonzales' ascension to his current post of attorney general; a future installment, the author notes in the preface, will deal with his time as head of the Department of Justice.

The chief usefulness of this book is in reminding the reader just how dependent Gonzales was on the patronage of Bush, who, before naming him White House counsel and attorney general, hired him as general counsel to the governor of Texas, named him secretary of state for Texas and appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court. And secondly, in showing in a very straightforward manner just how many secretive initiatives were taken in the weeks and months after 9/11 by a small group of administration lawyers, who were intent on finding ways to broaden and "fast-track presidential authority" and who often worked outside channels, apart "from anyone who might slow the directives down," including Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser; Colin Powell, then secretary of state; and uniformed lawyers at the Pentagon.

Though Minutaglio writes that he sent "an endless stream of questions" to the attorney general's office, he says "all but a handful of the most benign inquiries went unanswered." His interviews with Gonzales' colleagues, friends, corporate clients, and other lawyers have yielded a portrait of a willfully private man: discreet, enigmatic, hard to read, someone who plays everything very close to the vest.

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