- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2004

In nominating Alberto Gonzales to succeed John Ashcroft as attorney general, President Bush said, “This is the fifth time I have asked Judge Gonzales to serve his fellow citizens.” The other four? In order: General counsel in Mr. Bush’s Texas governorship; Texas secretary of state; Texas Supreme Court justice; and, since 2001, White House Counsel.

Those are small-office jobs while that of attorney general obviously isn’t. The attorney general heads the Justice Department, which, with its six litigating divisions, is the world’s largest law firm. He also presides over Justice’s satellite law enforcement agencies — chief among them the FBI. Justice employs 110,000 and has a $25 billion budget. While it has multiple responsibilities, its top priority since September 11, 2001, has rightly been fighting terrorism here at home.

Given what the job of attorney general entails, it’s easy to see how Mr. Bush might have picked someone with attributes that Mr. Gonzales, his longtime aide, plainly lacks — starting with substantial management and criminal law enforcement experience. Someone, in fact, like Larry Thompson, the recently departed deputy attorney general.

Mr. Gonzales will need a deputy as capable as Mr. Thompson to run the department day-to-day, not to mention a management team able to make needed changes, especially those to better fight terrorism.

As Mr. Gonzales knows, under Mr. Ashcroft, the Justice Department has deployed against terrorism in three major ways. It has sought to enhance the government’s intelligence capability to anticipate what might happen next; to frustrate the deadly missions of those set to pull the trigger; and to disrupt the networks and institutions that sustain terrorists.

Mr. Gonzales’s constant challenge will be to keep moving forward on each of those fronts — especially the first, because prevention and disruption depends on good intelligence, on “connecting the dots.”

The infamous “wall” that for more than two decades prevented information sharing between the intelligence and law enforcement communities was brought down by the Patriot Act. Yet the FBI, having long investigated very different kinds of (already committed) crimes (bank robbery, for example), is still getting used to its greatly stepped-up antiterrorist role.

The bureau could use more agents as it makes the transition, and certainly new information technologies, since it has computers that can’t even talk to each other, a significant handicap in trying to get ahead of the terrorists.

While Mr. Gonzales labors to complete the institutional makeover Mr. Ashcroft began, he will have related work to do outside the department — specifically on Capitol Hill. The Patriot Act is due for reauthorization next year. The antiterror fight will be severely hindered if the law is not extended.

Mr. Gonzales will find himself cast as the administration’s lead advocate for the act. Criticisms of the law tend to be overblown, but Mr. Gonzales’ challenge will be to hold firm in behalf of key provisions (such as the facilitation of intelligence sharing) but in a voice more persuasive than Mr. Ashcroft’s.

The key is for Mr. Gonzales to see it is not enough to answer civil liberties concerns, as Mr. Ashcroft too often did, by saying the department’s efforts fully comply with existing law or by suggesting national security simply demands those efforts.

There is an urgent need to frame a discussion about the tensions between liberty and security involved in fighting terrorists who are stateless, agile, inventive and absolutely willing to die, and the hard choices the United States faces.

Mr. Gonzales will have much else to do as attorney general, with judicial selection a high priority. But John Ashcroft spent the great bulk of his time fighting terrorism, and Mr. Gonzales must do that too. He’ll hold a job that in certain key respects he is unprepared for when its performance has seldom been so important. One must hope Mr. Bush’s confidence in soon-to-be Attorney General Gonzales is justified.

Terry Eastland is publisher of the Weekly Standard.

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