Former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said Thursday that his previous assertion that it was “legitimate to question and examine” charges of CIA abuses of terrorism suspects did not mean he endorsed such an investigation.
“Contrary to press reporting and based on the information that’s available to me,” Mr. Gonzales said during an interview Thursday with The Washington Times, “I don’t support the investigation by the department because this is a matter that has already been reviewed thoroughly and because I believe that another investigation is going to harm our intelligence gathering capabilities and that’s a concern that’s shared by career intelligence officials, and so for those reasons I respectfully disagree with the decision.”
On Monday, Mr. Gonzales told The Washington Times’ “America’s Morning News” radio program that he understood Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s inquiry would look at “the 1 percent of actors who went beyond the legal limits prescribed by the lawyers at the Department of Justice.”
“We obviously worked very hard during the Bush administration to establish ground rules to establish parameters about how to deal with terrorists, because we’re a nation of laws, and if people go beyond that, I think it is legitimate to question and examine that conduct to ensure people are held accountable for their actions, even if it’s action in prosecuting the war on terror and trying to protect America.”
On Thursday, Mr. Gonzales said that statement was not an endorsement of Mr. Holder’s investigation, just of his right to do so. The cases already had been examined by the Justice Department and no charges were brought then, a point Mr. Gonzales emphasized in other contexts on Thursday.
“It’s an endorsement of his right to exercise his discretion,” he said. “I’m just saying I would have exercised my discretion in a different manner, given the information I have.”
He did not elaborate on what information he had when he was attorney general, from 2005 to 2007, or how it might differ from the information Mr. Holder has now, since the abuse all occurred in President George W. Bush’s first term and was compiled in a 2004 report released last week.
Mr. Gonzales added, “I do respect the role of the attorney general to make this decision based upon his judgment of the facts, I just respectfully disagree with the decision.”
Mr. Gonzales said that a new investigation is not warranted by the “1 percent of actors” going beyond the Justice Department’s “legal limit,” analogizing Mr. Holder’s discretionary right to pursue a case to that of a police officer deciding whom to ticket for speeding.
“It’s no different than when a police officer sees someone perhaps speeding — there is discretion in the law enforcement community, given the circumstances, whether to investigate or to prosecute,” he said. “And again this is a matter that has already been looked into thoroughly.”
Mr. Gonzales wouldn’t discuss what evidence was uncovered during the Bush administration that led him to conclude Mr. Holder’s investigation is unnecessary and that no criminal charges should be brought against CIA interrogators.
“This has been looked at, and I agree with President Obama that we ought to be looking forward,” he said. “As I’ve said before, these individuals — they place their lives in physical risk and now, apparently, they place themselves in legal jeopardy as a result of gathering information to protect our country. And I just think we ought to consider them as heroes and we should recognize their service.”
Human-rights groups have said Mr. Holder’s probe should go beyond individual interrogators to include Bush administration officials, including Mr. Gonzales, who developed the interrogation polices.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said in response to Monday’s radio interview that he was “not surprised” Mr. Gonzales would support Mr. Holder’s probe precisely because it does not target senior Bush administration officials. Mr. Gonzales declined Thursday to respond to those comments.
Mr. Gonzales said he wanted to do a second interview with The Times to correct what he saw as erroneous news reports and not because any former Bush administration officials pressured him to do so.
He said that includes former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has emerged as the most vocal defender of Bush-era interrogation policies.
“No one asked me to do this because no one who knows me could possibly believe I would support this investigation,” Mr. Gonzales said.