President Bush named Alberto Gonzales, the White House lawyer who advised him that he could disregard the "obsolete" Geneva Conventions, as America's new attorney general Wednesday. Unveiling the first new Cabinet appointment since his reelection last week, Bush said the 49-year-old had already been instrumental in the war on terror. "His sharp intellect and sound judgment have helped shape our policies in the war on terror," Bush said.
But news of Gonzales' nomination to the top job at the Justice Department, replacing John Ashcroft, who resigned on Tuesday, was poorly received by U.S. human rights groups, which said he had shown scant regard for the importance of international human rights law. Jamie Fellner, head of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, said: "The elections did not hand President Bush a blank check to carry on as before. It is distressing that his first nominee post-election not only doesn't have a record of defending human rights but has a record of actively opposing their recognition."
Democrats took a more equivocal view. One prominent senator, Charles Schumer, said: "We will have to review his record very carefully, but I can tell you already he's a better candidate than John Ashcroft."
Gonzales, who would be the country's first Hispanic attorney general if confirmed by Congress, comes from modest beginnings, one of eight children born to a Texan family. "'Just give me a chance to prove myself' -- that is a common prayer for those in my community," he said. "Mr. President, thank you for that chance."
As White House counsel, Gonzales was a central figure in the Bush administration's debate over how to treat prisoners in the "global war on terror" after the 9/11 attacks. In a memorandum to the president in January 2002, he argued that the president had the authority to disregard the Geneva Conventions. Arguing that the U.S. faced "a new kind of war," in which there was a need to obtain information quickly from "captured terrorists and their sponsors," Gonzales wrote: "This new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners."
He also described as "quaint" provisions in the Geneva Conventions requiring that enemy captives be given monthly pay, athletic uniforms and scientific instruments. Gonzales later claimed he was simply outlining the options and that Bush subsequently decided that all captives should be humanely treated even if not by the letter of the Geneva Conventions. Administration critics, however, said the Gonzales memo, and a subsequent Justice Department memo that he approved, ultimately paved the way for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere.
Gonzales is part of the circle of advisors who came with Bush from Texas. As the chief legal advisor, one of his jobs was to summarize death-row cases for the governor, who had the power to grant a stay of execution. Bush never did, and Gonzales' case summaries were criticized as being breezy and skewed against the prisoner.
Legal observers said he was less ideological and more self-effacing than the outgoing Ashcroft, who claimed in his resignation letter that "the objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved."