President Bush listens to his attorney general nominee, Alberto Gonzales, in Washington
Jason Reed  /  Reuters
President Bush listens as White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales speaks to the media after Bush nominated him to be attorney general Wednesday at the White House.
updated 11/11/2004 6:15:35 PM ET 2004-11-11T23:15:35

The road to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales’ confirmation as the first Latino U.S. attorney general may run through two controversial places: the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Texas’ death row.

Although most senators expect Gonzales, President Bush’s longtime friend and White House lawyer, to be confirmed as the 80th U.S. attorney general, Democrats plan to use a hearing on his nomination to press for answers on White House decisions they think led to the Iraqi prisoners scandal.

Gonzales’ confirmation “may be the only remaining forum in which to examine more fully the steps that were taken to weaken U.S. policy on torture in the period that led to the prison scandals at Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

Opponents of the death penalty also want Gonzales questioned on how the Justice Department will apply the federal death penalty given Gonzales’ time in Texas as adviser to Bush when he was governor of Texas.

Gonzales was part of Bush’s inner circle of advisers during the executions of Terry Washington, a mentally retarded killer, in 1997 and Karla Faye Tucker, a pickax murderer for whom Pope John Paul II sought clemency, in 1998.

Bush oversaw more than 150 executions in Texas.

Liberals are reviewing a 2003 article in Atlantic Monthly claiming that as Bush’s legal counsel in Texas, Gonzales on clemency petitions “repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence.”

The attorney general should be someone who will “not approach this topic with a cavalier attitude,” said David Elliot, a spokesman for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

While the coalition is not taking an official position on Gonzales, “the track record is not promising,” Elliot said.

Close questioning expected
Gonzales, 49, would replace Attorney General John Ashcroft, who offered a letter of resignation on Election Day.

During his time in Washington, Gonzales has worked closely with several senators on judicial nominations and other issues and is well-liked by both sides of the aisle on the Judiciary Committee. “I just think this would be the wrong fight for them to pick,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

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Democrats are not expected to try to block Gonzales’ nomination, but they are expected to grill him strongly about the accountability of the White House during the war on terrorism.

Gonzales drew criticism after the terrorist attacks in 2001 when he wrote a memo in which Bush claimed the right to waive anti-torture law and international treaties protecting prisoners of war. That position drew fire from human rights groups, who said it helped lead to the type of abuses uncovered in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Specifically, Gonzales’ memo said the Geneva Conventions that had long governed the treatment of prisoners did not apply to al-Qaida or the war in Afghanistan.

“Even Secretary of State [Colin] Powell objected to Mr. Gonzales’ memorandum undermining the Geneva Conventions, which Mr. Gonzales called ‘obsolete’ and ‘quaint,’” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Democrats say Congress has not done enough to find out how far up the chain blame should go while lower-ranking soldiers are being prosecuted. Gonzales knows that those questions are going to come up, Leahy said.

“I raised it with him when I talked with him today, that of course we’re going to ask questions about the memo and the detainees at Guantanamo and at Abu Ghraib,” Leahy said Wednesday on PBS, along with “the question about whether the Geneva Convention should be set aside and his role in that.”

Gonzales may also run into some opposition from Republicans who have some concerns about his views on abortion, especially after the fallout with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a supporter of abortion rights, who is poised to head the Judiciary Committee.

Conservatives point to Gonzales’ vote on the Texas Supreme Court to allow a teenager to get an abortion without her parents’ consent.

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