By Marjorie Cohn
Dear Mr. Gonzales,
You have been rewarded for your unflinching loyalty to George W. Bush with a nomination for Attorney General of the United States. As White House Counsel, you have walked in lockstep with the President. As Attorney General, you will be charged with representing all the people of the United States. Your performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday verified that you will continue to be a yes-man for Bush once you are confirmed.
In the face of interrogation by members of the Committee, you waffled, equivocated, lied, feigned lack of memory, and even remained silent, in the face of the most probing questions. Your refusals to answer prompted Senator Patrick Leahy to say, “Mr. Gonzales, I’d almost think that you’d served in the Senate, you’ve learned how to filibuster so well.”
Even though the Department of Justice retracted the August 2002 torture memo, and replaced it with a new one on the eve of your confirmation hearing, you still refuse to denounce the old memo’s narrow and illegal definition of torture. You permitted that definition to remain as government policy for 2 1/2 years, which enabled the torture of countless prisoners in U.S. custody.
You continually evaded inquiries about your responsibility for drafting the now-repudiated memo by portraying yourself as a mere conduit for legal opinions from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. This puzzled Senator Russ Feingold, who said, “If you were my lawyer, I’d sure want to know your opinion about something like that.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told you, “I think we’ve dramatically undermined the war effort by getting on the slippery slope in terms of playing cute with the law, because it’s come back to bite us.” Indeed, 12 retired professional military leaders of the U.S. Armed Forces wrote to the Judiciary Committee, expressing “deep concern” about your nomination because detention and interrogation operations which you appeared to have “played a significant role in shaping” have “undermined our intelligence gathering efforts, and added to the risks facing our troops serving around the world.”
When Senator Graham, an Air Force judge advocate, asked you if you agreed with a professional military lawyer’s opinion that the August memo may have put our troops in jeopardy, you were tongue tied. You said nothing for several embarrassing seconds, until Senator Graham suggested you think it over and respond later.
When Senator Richard Durbin asked “Do you believe there are circumstances where other legal restrictions, like the War Crimes Act, would not apply to U.S. personnel?” you again sat mute for several seconds, and then asked to respond later.
It is alarming, Mr. Gonzales, that a lawyer with your pedigree would be stumped into silence by these questions.
You have taken the unprecedented step of advising the President that the Geneva Conventions have become “obsolete.” You testified that since “we are fighting a new type of enemy and a new type of war,” you “think it is appropriate to revisit whether or not Geneva should be revisited.” You admitted preliminary discussions are already underway.
The 12 former military leaders wrote, “Repeatedly in our past, the United States has confronted foes that, at the time they emerged, posed threats of a scope or nature unlike any we had previously faced. But we have been far more steadfast in the past in keeping faith with our national commitment to the rule of law.”
Mr. Gonzales, you have concurred in, even commissioned, advice that led to the following:
Sodomy with a broomstick, chemical light, metal object
Water boarding (simulated drowning)
Attaching electrodes to private parts
Pulling out fingernails
Pushing lit cigarettes into ears
Chaining hand and foot in fetal position without food or water
Forced standing on one leg in the sun
Gagging with duct tape
Tormenting with loud music and strobe lights
Subjecting to freezing/sweltering temperatures
Repeated, prolonged rectal exams
Hanging by arms from hooks
Permitting serious dog bites
Bending back fingers
Intense isolation for more than 3 months
Stacking of naked prisoners in pyramids
Injecting with drugs
Leaving bullet in body of wounded prisoner
Taping naked prisoner to board
Shooting into containers with men inside
Keeping prisoners in small, outdoor cages
Pepper spraying in face
Forcing heads into toilets and flushing
Threatening live burial, drowning, electrocution, rape and death
Beating prisoners to death
Killing wounded prisoners
Throwing off bridge into river and drowning
Saddam Hussein would be proud of you, Mr. Gonzales.
Perhaps most alarming was your response to Senator Durbin’s question, “Can U.S. personnel legally engage in torture under any circumstances?” You answered, “I don’t believe so, but I’d want to get back to you on that.” You failed to give a categorical “no” answer. You surely know, Mr. Gonzales, that the Convention Against Torture prohibits torture at any time. That treaty, ratified by the United States and therefore part of the Supreme law of the land under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, says, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture.”
Mr. Gonzales, based on your record and your performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I have critical concerns about your appointment as Attorney General. I believe you would stand mute if George W. Bush told you he planned to collapse the three branches of government into one, destroying the Constitutional separation of powers. Even though Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives only Congress the authority “to make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water,” you refused to tell the Senate Judiciary Committee that the President is not above the law. You think the President has the power to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. You would rationalize the torture of prisoners.
Where even the strident John Ashcroft thought prisoners in United States custody are entitled to due process, you designed the military tribunals to deny it to them.
As counsel to Texas Governor George W. Bush, you wrote abbreviated clemency memos in capital cases omitting crucial defenses such as ineffective assistance of counsel, even evidence of factual innocence. Your counsel led Bush to deny pardons in 56 of 57 death penalty cases.
You sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the American people for seven hours with a smug grin on your face, lying to us, knowing you will be confirmed.
Your testimony led the New York Times to opine, “Mr. Bush had made the wrong choice when he rewarded Mr. Gonzales for his loyalty,” and the conservative Washington Post to say, “The message Mr. Gonzales left with senators was unmistakable: As attorney general, he will seek no change in practices that have led to the torture and killing of scores of detainees and to the blackening of U.S. moral authority around the world.” The Post concluded, “Those senators who are able to reach clear conclusions about torture and whether the United States should engage in it have reason for grave reservations about Mr. Gonzales.”
You will have the distinction of being the first Latino Attorney General of the United States. You come from humble roots in Humble, Texas. You should understand the struggles of people of color, yet you have turned your back on them. As overseer of the policies that led to the torture of myriad people of color in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, you have betrayed your roots.
Your actions have shamed us in the eyes of the world and endangered our fighting men and women.
You do not deserve to be our country’s top prosecutor, head of the Department of Justice, charged with protecting our civil rights.
Mr. Gonzales, you should be ashamed.
Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, and the U.S. representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists.