Alberto Gonzales did what good politicians do: He talked out of both sides of his mouth at his confirmation hearing for U.S. attorney general.
President Bush's White House legal counsel repudiated the torture of prisoners in the war on terror last week, even as he defended as a "hypothetical" the presidential prerogative to ignore laws and treaties and pursue torture of detainees. True, terrorists are not soldiers under the auspices of signatory governments to the Geneva accords. But America can't hold itself up as a beacon of democracy and justice to the world and then make exceptions. Human rights aren't always convenient to uphold.
There are ways to interrogate prisoners without turning to torture tactics imposed by despotic regimes. That's the point Gonzales should have made.
Instead, he simply shrugged off his role in a 2002 memo that allowed torture of prisoners at the U.S. base in Guantanamo, Cuba, and eventually led to the abhorrent practices at Abu Ghraib prison and reportedly others in Iraq.
On the surface, Gonzales said the right things. He was "sickened and outraged by those photos" of the U.S. military's treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. What he failed to do, though, is admit that changing U.S. policy on the treatment of detainees placed our own troops in danger.
Criticism of Gonzales' judgment ought not to be dismissed as liberal ramblings or politically motivated attacks by Democrats. Many thoughtful Republicans and U.S. military officials understand what's at stake.
As Sen. Lindsey Graham -- a Republican from South Carolina, Air Force reservist and former military prosecutor -- noted at the hearing: "The world is watching us. 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."
Bite? An understatement considering the beheadings and bomb ambushes of Americans in Iraq. Those photos energized terrorist groups' recruitment efforts. Graham is right. The anything-goes treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, he said, created "legal chaos" and, as those tactics have extended to Iraq, they're "putting our troops in jeopardy."
Gonzales noted that as attorney general he would "no longer represent only the White House. I will represent the United States of America and its people. I understand the difference between the two roles."
Other attorneys general were able to put their obligations to uphold the law before the White House's interests. Janet Reno, for instance. Not that I agreed with her on many issues, but she surely didn't shy away from following the law's requirements even when her actions were unpopular and even when they hurt President Bill Clinton. Let's not forget how many special counsels she appointed after Republicans in Congress clamored for Clinton's head over matters that proved inconsequential in the grand scheme of governance.
Although the special counsel law is no more, the question begs: Would Gonzales have done the same in any matter of law involving Bush?
No doubt Gonzales' life story is compelling. The child of struggling migrant workers, Gonzales served in the Air Force and went on to Harvard. No doubt, too, that the Senate will confirm him. Democrats would be nuts to alienate Hispanic voters when Gonzales would make history as the nation's first Latino in the Justice Department's highest post.
Gonzales has promised to "pursue justice in all realms -- from the war on terror to corporate fraud to civil rights." He vowed to be "faithful to the rule of law" and protect civil liberties.
Yet it's no secret that Gonzales is a loyal soldier to Bush. Loyalty surely is an attractive quality, but when justice is at stake, there's no question the rule of law must trump loyalty to any president.
X Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.