Better later than never
The US attorney-general Alberto Gonzales, the man responsible for much of the controversial counter-terrorism measures of the Bush administration, has resigned. Tamam Ahmed Jama reports
n his resignation statement last week, describing his remarkable journey from underprivileged childhood in Texas to the pinnacle of power in Washington, United States Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales said, "I have lived the American dream; even my worst days as attorney- general have been better than my father's best days." He leaves behind, many argue, droves of people living the American nightmare thanks to the policies that the son of a Mexican migrant worker helped to devise.
Gonzales, who was appointed attorney- general in January 2005 and who had previously served as a White House legal counsel, has played a pivotal role in the war on terror. He is the architect of the rules governing Guantanamo Bay, the controversial US military prison in Cuba.
Gonzales' resignation comes after a six- month standoff with Congress over bungled FBI terror investigations and the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors. His critics in the Democratic-led Congress have argued that the sackings were politically motivated and have accused Gonzales of abuse of office -- calling into question the attorney- general's honesty and ability to head the Justice Department.
"Alberto Gonzales was never the right man for this job: he lacked independence, he lacked judgement and he lacked the spine to say no to [White House senior advisor] Karl Rove," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "This resignation is not the end of the story. Congress must get to the bottom of this mess and follow the facts where they lead -- into the White House."
Thousands of documents released by the Justice Department show a White House plot, hatched shortly after the 2004 elections, to replace US attorneys, with senior White House officials, including Rove, suggesting at one point replacing all 93 prosecutors. Eight of them were ordered to resign in December 2006. In a number of House and Senate hearings, Gonzales and other Justice Department officials failed to explain fully the reasons for the dismissals and seemed to contradict themselves. During his testimony in Congress, Gonzales answered "I don't know" and "I can't recall" to a series of questions -- prompting even some Republicans to say that his testimony was evasive. US attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and can be dismissed at any time. But Democrats in Congress have argued that politics have played a critical role in the present case.
Gonzales, who had been a controversial figure to start with, found himself in the firing line in early March over the FBI's improper, according to some illegal, prying into the personal information of Americans during terror probes. An audit released by the Justice Department showed that FBI agents had been demanding, without official authorisation, that telephone and Internet companies hand over the personal data of their customers. Gonzales, who has maintained that he has done nothing wrong, said he was upset over the findings. But lawmakers insisted they no longer had any confidence in him.
Gonzales is the fourth senior official to leave the Bush administration since the Republican Party suffered heavy losses in the November 2006 mid-term elections. Former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfled, the architect of the war in Iraq, quit after the November elections. Paul Wolfowitz agreed to step down in May as president of the World Bank following an ethics investigation. And Rove announced his resignation in early August.
Gonzales pushed for expanded presidential powers in the war on terror, including the drafting of the controversial Military Commissions Act 2006 and the limiting of the rights of people in US custody suspected of involvement in terrorism. He gained notoriety for writing a memo to President George W Bush in which he argued that the war on terrorism was a "new kind of war" that rendered obsolete the provisions of the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war. The controversial memo came to light after the Abu Ghraib scandal and many say that it led directly to the abuses that took place at the prison.
Bush stood by his embattled attorney- general until Gonzales' position became simply untenable -- with both Republicans and Democrats demanding his resignation. Reacting to the resignation, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards echoed the feelings of many in Washington when he said, "Better late than never".
Many in human rights circles are also relieved to see the back of Gonzales, whose resignation becomes effective on 17 September. The New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represents many of the Guantanamo Bay detainees, welcomed Gonzales' resignation, saying in a statement that he "was instrumental in paving the way for the abuse and atrocities at Abu Ghraib. His tenure as White House legal counsel and then as attorney-general was marked by naked hostility to civil liberties and an alarming disregard for the US Constitution and international law." The CCR urged Congress to probe Gonzales for criminal wrongdoing, adding, "His resignation, while welcome and long-coming, is only the beginning. Until the entire cabal that has engaged in torture, the creation of off- shore prisons such as Guantanamo, violations of the Geneva Conventions, and warrantless wiretapping of Americans is held accountable, there is little to celebrate in Gonzales' resignation. Guantanamo continues -- as do torture, wiretapping, secret CIA sites, rendition, and illegal trials."