Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Alberto Gonzales and His Perverse Sense of Political Martyrdom

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has recently resurfaced in the news media as he has announced plans to write a tell-all book about his time as a member of the Bush Administration. Gonzales appeared on The O'Reilly Factor last week to answer softball questions from substitute host Juan Williams about his role in approving so-called enhanced interrogation techniques and his role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys.

Billed as a "Factor Exclusive", it quickly became clear why Gonzales chose The O'Reilly Factor as the forum for his first interview since leaving the Bush Administration. Williams began the interview with this question:

WILLIAMS: Now do these kind of loud appeals coming from the left for the
Obama administration to go after you, to look at criminal proceedings, does that
worry you?

GONZALES: It doesn't worry me, Juan. Obviously, in every
administration, every president is criticized. Cabinet heads are criticized. I
think if you're not criticized by someone, you're probably not doing your

Other questions Williams asked were:

WILLIAMS: Now Ruben Navarrette, the columnist out in San Diego he says, you
know what? Liberals don't like you, conservatives don't like you. He says civil
libertarians are going after you for treatment of detainees as well as for
wiretaps. And then last week, you had the Senate Armed Services report that said
that based on their studies, the Obama administration should look at future
criminal proceedings. Now, let's stop and think about this for a second. Do you think that you did anything wrong in terms of paving the way for
detainees to be tortured?

WILLIAMS: Now, Mr. Attorney General, in September, the current Attorney
General Michael Mukasey appointed a prosecutor to look at whether or not there
were possible criminal charges, again criminal charges that could put you in
jail in regard to the firing of those nine U.S. attorneys. Again,
you're on the spot. You know, some people say there's a lynch mob after you. We
have talked just a moment ago about detainees. Now we are back to the nine U.S.
attorneys. Again, do you have any sense that you did something wrong
with regard to the firing of those nine U.S. attorneys?

Guess what Gonzales answered to both of these questions? "Absolutely not Juan..." followed by a long explanation for why he didn't feel he was in the wrong. It is clear that this was not a critical interview, but a chance for Alberto Gonzalez to continue to spout his talking points and deny that he did anything wrong or criminal while he was a member of the Bush Administration. Williams performance reminded me of a defense attorney gently asking his client rehearsed questions in order to allow his client to give favorable testimony in front of jurors.

If this appearance wasn't interesting enough, Gonzales also gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal's Evan Perez. From Perez's piece:

"What is it that I did that is so fundamentally wrong, that deserves this kind
of response to my service?" he said during an interview Tuesday, offering his
most extensive comments since leaving government.
During a lunch meeting two blocks from the White House, where he served under his longtime friend, President George W. Bush, Mr. Gonzales said that "for some reason, I am portrayed as the one who is evil in formulating policies that people disagree with. I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror."

Go ahead and read that excerpt again if you need to because it is quite telling of the mindset that exists not just within the Bush Administration, but within Washington. Not only does Gonzales express a sense of bewilderment at why people would think that he has done anything wrong, but he also plays the role of a political martyr by victimizing himself as "one of the many casualties of the war on terror." When I think about casualties of the so-called "War on Terror", I tend to think about the hundreds of thousands of innocents killed between Afghanistan and Iraq, I tend to think about the millions of displaced persons in both countries, and I tend to think about all those effected by the attacks on the World Trade Center. to name a few. What I don't think about, is Alberto Gonzales and his political career.

Aside from being appalling, the mindset that Gonzales puts forth stems from his belief that he is portrayed as evil for "formulating policies that people disagree with". He is viewing this, as was done in the interview with Juan Williams, as a political issue. Opponents of the torture policies and wiretapping policies that Gonzales has shown his support for, are painted as "liberals", "lynch mobs" and with vague terms like "the left". The debate is framed as political opposition to policies that were implemented by the Bush Administration. This issue, that of lawbreaking conducted by Bush Administration officials, should not be viewed through the lens of political accountability rather these concerns exist outside traditional political discourse. These concerns need to be discussed without a Pavlovian response to paint everything as "the left" vs. "the right" because we are talking about accountability to the rule of law and remaining a country in which no person can operate above the law.

The bewilderment that Alberto Gonzales expresses as he asks "what is it that I did that is so fundamentally wrong" is precisely a reason for why these Bush Administration officials should be held to account. Alberto Gonzales, like other Bush Administration officials, believe that they have done nothing wrong and that this criticism stems from "political opponents". This is despite reports like those from the bi-partisan Senate Armed Services Committee that state that Bush Administration officials are "directly responsible" for the abuse of detainees and despite the report done by Physicians for Human Rights which led Maj. General Antonio Taguba to state:

After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts,
and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to
whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question
is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.

It is imperative for the Obama Administration to understand that holding elected officials to account for breaking the law falls outside of political retribution. The media pundits and the Bush Administration continue to try and frame this issue of accountability within the context of political differences and in order for any kind of legal accountability to take place, it is absolutely necessary for the incoming administration to recognize that this is taking place. This would not be an act of investigating political opponents who drew up unfavorable policies, this would be an act of investigating elected officials who committed serious crimes because they believed themselves to be above the law. There is a difference and in order for this country to preserve itself as a nation where no one is above the law, it is a difference that needs to be realized and articulated by the incoming administration.

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