News : Counterpoint

Worst President? Try worst AG - Alberto Gonzales is leaving a legacy that would make Stalin smile

Is President Bush the worst president in U.S. history? There’s been a lot of speculation about this lately, the debate made difficult only because some of W’s predecessors behaved so egregiously (Warren Harding and Richard Nixon come to mind). While I’m not opposed to this line of query, it might be overshadowing an even more important question: Is Alberto Gonzales the worst Attorney General in U.S. history?

The names of former Attorneys General don’t roll off the tongue — Philander C. Knox, Felix Grundy (cousin to Solomon?), and Ebenezer Hoar among them — although the AG’s importance and influence can hardly be overstated. These days, the Solicitor General usually represents the government before the Supreme Court, freeing up the AG to offer his opinion on matters from the torturing of prisoners to domestic wiretapping. And like our state AG, Greg Abbott, Gonzales’s opinions set the standard for government behavior. A stern glance could prevent another Gitmo; a wink and a nudge may pave the way for more widespread surveillance of American citizens.

In this capacity, Gonzales has proved himself invaluable to the administration. My mother’s 16-year-old beagle never heeled so well. Gonzales’s most recent assist to the administration’s anti-Constitutional juggernaut occurred Sunday on ABC’s This Week, where he said, yes, the government could choose to prosecute journalists if they publish classified information. “We have an obligation to enforce those laws,” said the AG, apparently referring to the Espionage Act. “We have an obligation to ensure that our national security is protected.”

Legal analysts and civil-rights activists quickly pointed out that those laws have not been used to prosecute journalists — and for good reason. All the government would have to do to conceal wrongdoing is classify any incriminating information (the W squad, you’ll recall, has classified more documents than any preceding administration). Then the public could never know that the National Security Agency is wiretapping us without warrants, for instance, a violation of U.S. law and, arguably, the Constitution. It was the New York Times’ revelation in January of the NSA’s program — which the NSA concealed even from those in Congress tasked with overseeing the agency — that prompted Gonzales’s analysis.

`As an aside, one wonders why the administration is so concerned. The program, which was implemented under CIA nominee General Michael Hayden, has not dimmed the General’s prospects for confirmation.`

If the government follows up on the threat, the Supreme Court may have another chance to spank the Attorney General. Pundits have argued that the court’s 2004 ruling that the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay could not be held in indefinite legal limbo was influenced by the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib. Those pictures were evidence of an administrative branch that held itself above the law, standing on a stack of legal memos and op-eds justifying the use of torture and extra-legal detention written by our Texas-born-and-bred AG.

But Sunday’s appearance makes it clear that neither Gonzales nor the administration are chastised — they are in fact upping the ante by offering to ruin the professional and personal lives of anyone who dares challenge them, even if they have to destroy what’s left of the fourth estate to do it. Gonzales’s veiled threat would make any dictator smile, and it’s one more reason to impeach Bush, and send his cabinet packing, too.

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