By: Joe Strupp
A new report from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press paints a picture of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales — who has been nominated to replace U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft — as someone who has worked tirelessly to keep information from the press and public if he believes it could hurt the president, and does not appear ready to change.
“Every attorney general has a significant impact on the media’s ability to gather and report news, as well as the public’s right to know what its government is doing,” the report states. With that in mind, the Reporters Committee staff researched Gonzales’ performance both in Texas, where he was a top adviser to then-Gov. Bush before serving on the state’s Supreme Court, and as White House counsel since January 2001.
“Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think concerns about the media enter into his thinking,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “I think he is going to be even more aggressive than Ashcroft in making sure the executive right to keep secrets is protected.”
One interesting item the reprot found from Gonzales’ time in Texas: “Gonzales was instrumental in getting Bush excused from jury duty in 1996 — a move that allowed the governor to avoid having to disclose that he had been arrested for drunken driving in Maine in 1976, the Houston Chronicle reported. Bush was able to keep it a secret until the final days of his 2000 presidential campaign.”
Gonzales appears to have offered support for press rights during his service as a Texas Supreme Court justice, from Jan. 14, 1999 to Dec. 22, 2000, the reports say: “Gonzales joined the majority in upholding the rights of the media — while in some cases also declining to adopt increased protections recognized in other jurisdictions — in all four Texas Supreme Court decisions involving free press or freedom of information issues that were published during his tenure.”
At the White House, however, the report points out Gonzales’ interpretation of executive privilege, which he has sought to broaden under the Bush Administration, as potentially the most troubling of his actions as White House counsel: “Alberto Gonzales has been an active defender of what is best described as a quasi-executive privilege, invoked repeatedly by the Bush administration in attempts to keep government information from public scrutiny.”
The Reporters Committee points to several instances of Gonzales defending executive privilege, including Gonzales supporting its invocation against requests for official testimony and government documents by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which was appointed to study the circumstances surrounding 9/11 and the United States’ preparedness for and response to those attacks.
Those included blocking efforts to have national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testify, withholding 360 of the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB) reports after Rice indicated a specific reference to potential terrorist attacks in one of them, and preventing the House Government Reform Committee from seeing documents pertaining to three criminals pardoned by President Clinton.
“Gonzales recommended that Congress not be allowed to see [pardon] documents related to the prosecutor’s decision-making process,” the report states. “He further recommended Bush claim executive privilege if House Government Reform Committee subpoenaed memos or tried to question Attorney General John Ashcroft about the pardons.”
On Gonzales’s involvement in the grand jury investigation into apparent White House leaks of the identity of CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame, the report says “not much is known.” But, it mentions that Gonzales did not seek to limit information, distributing memos to all White House staff telling them to preserve anything they had concerning Plame or contacts with several journalists, including newspaper columnist Robert Novak, who had identified Plame in a column.
Gonzales has “played a key role in keeping presidential records out of the public eye and asked for several extensions to deadlines for turning over papers of past presidents,” the report says. “Earlier this year, Gonzales also pressured the nation’s archivist, John Carlin, to resign, according to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Carlin’s departure — he resigned without giving a reason — sparked speculation that he was forced out in order to protect the records of the first President Bush.”
The report also cited Bush’s efforts to protect his advisors from being forced to testify, saying, “Gonzales picked one battle in particular to doggedly fight: that the president and those working closely with him must be able to receive counsel from advisers without public inquiry. Gonzales argued throughout the summer of 2002 that Vice President Cheney and the records of his energy policy task force should not be subject to open-government laws.”
The report also cited Gonzales’ comments following the release in June 2002 of memos and documents detailing the administration’s decisions on the use of torture. In “a rare appearance at a news conference later, Gonzales hinted that secrecy would remain the norm for related documents. ‘The government is releasing an extraordinary set of documents today, and this should not be viewed as setting any kind of precedent,’ Gonzales said. ‘But we felt it important to set the record straight. Additional documents may be withheld in the future for national security and other reasons.'”
In a related action, after President Bush signed a military order in 2001 allowing suspected terrorists to be tried in military tribunals rather than regular courts, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Gonzales defending the use of the tribunals. “They spare American jurors, judges and courts the grave risks associated with terrorist trials,” the report quotes from the column. “They allow the government to use classified information as evidence without compromising intelligence or military efforts. They can dispense justice swiftly, close to where our forces may be fighting, without years of pretrial proceedings or post-trial appeals.”
The complete report is available at the Reporters Committee Web site.