Former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, a man accused of politicizing the Justice Department and authorizing interrogation tactics that some say led to detainee abuses, praised as an independent legal decision his successor’s probe into whether CIA agents tortured terrorist suspects.
In stark contrast to former Vice President Dick Cheney’s vigorous criticisms over the weekend of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s reopening of investigations of CIA employees, Mr. Gonzales said Tuesday that Mr. Holder was correct to pay no heed to President Obama’s often-stated desire to look forward on the issue and instead to make a legal decision based on the facts.
“As chief prosecutor of the United States, he should make the decision on his own, based on the facts, then inform the White House,” Mr. Gonzales said Tuesday on The Washington Times’ “America’s Morning News” radio show.
Mr. Gonzales said Bush administration attorneys clearly defined what interrogation techniques were legal and those who went beyond the rules should be investigated, despite any chilling effect it might have on future intelligence-gathering.
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“We worked very hard to establish ground rules and parameters about how to deal with terrorists,” he said. “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.”
Mr. Gonzales made his remarks just two days after Mr. Cheney, who has taken the lead in defending the conduct of the war on terrorism, blasted Mr. Holder’s decision to name federal prosecutor John Durham to conduct the review as “an outrageous political act” that “offends the hell out of me.”
“It’s clearly a political move; I mean, there’s no other rationale for why they’re doing this,” Mr. Cheney said on “Fox News Sunday,” in comments echoed on Sunday’s talk shows by two Republican senators — John McCain of Arizona and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.
Attempts to reach Mr. Cheney for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Mr. Gonzales’ words won backhanded praise from human rights watchdog groups, who noted exactly the fact Mr. Gonzales did: that the probe focuses on the CIA agents who conducted the interrogations while doing nothing about Bush administration legal officials who told the agents they could take those actions.
Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said that “there’s a kind of dumb honesty to Mr. Gonzales.”
“There is no reason why he shouldn’t support this investigation because, at least on the face of it, it appears to validate the Bush-era legal memos concerning interrogations,” he said. “The indications are Holder’s investigation will focus on interrogators who went beyond the Justice Department guidance and what that suggests to Mr. Gonzales is that those who authorized techniques like waterboarding have nothing to fear.”
Mr. Malinowski described such an investigation as a “safe investigation” for former senior officials and is “not surprised Mr. Gonzales is happy about it, strange as it may sound to have him speaking in support of this investigation.”
Devon Chaffee, advocacy counsel for Human Rights First, said Mr. Gonzales “is right to praise Attorney General Holder for doing his job and upholding the law and for investigating crimes he suspects may have been committed.” But she said Mr. Holder needs to broaden his inquiry, though she declined to specify Mr. Gonzales.
“In this case, accountability can’t stop at the front line. It has to reach those most responsible for crafting illegal policies that put lower-level agents in jeopardy of criminal liability,” she said.
Ms. Chaffee would not speculate about whether Mr. Gonzales could be among those who would be found criminally liable for helping to form Bush administration interrogation policies. “Obviously, there’s a lot of information we don’t have,” she said.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Rep. Peter T. King of New York, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security and a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Mr. Gonzales was wrong in assuming that the current attorney general’s decision was about the law, or anything besides politics or ideology.
“I don’t know the reason for it,” he said. “I just think Gonzales is missing the larger point here: This is either a political decision or a liberal philosophical decision by Holder.”
Mr. King said Mr. Holder’s decision to reopen the case “has all the indicators of a political investigation, a political decision,” because “these cases have already been investigated by the Justice Department, have already been examined, to reopen them has to have a chilling effect and violates the spirit of double jeopardy.”
In his “America’s Morning News” radio interview, Mr. Gonzales also acknowledged the unrest within the CIA over such a “preliminary review,” which could lead to a broader investigation. Mr. Holder made his decision over the objections of CIA Director Leon E. Panetta.
“I’ve talked to friends of mine in the CIA, and there is a great deal of concern,” he said. “People are scared about taking actions that might be legal but in any way controversial. They’re just not going to do it.”
The Justice Department had no comment Tuesday on Mr. Gonzales’ support for Mr. Holder.
Mr. Gonzales said the U.S. attorney general has a “great deal of discretion” in such matters, and he said he has no inside information on whether, as reported, Mr. Holder made the decision alone and then informed Mr. Obama, who can overrule him.
Still, Mr. Gonzales expressed his confidence that Mr. Holder is concerned only about the “1 percent of actors” who went beyond the guidelines of Justice Department lawyers, not conducting a witch hunt.
The other 99 percent “are heroes and should be treated like heroes for the most part, not criminals,” he said.
But Mr. Malinowski compared the current Holder probe to the fallout from the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
“I think what some critics of Holder have said is that this reminds them of the Abu Ghraib investigation, which happened, of course, during the Bush administration, in which the only people prosecuted were a bunch of young soldiers who went beyond what they were authorized to do,” he said, “and because they weren’t authorized to do it, there was no way to draw a connection between them and senior officials.”
Mr. Gonzales’ tenure as attorney general produced several political furors and an internal investigation that later described him as an uninvolved administrator.
His tenure included several charges of politicization of the department, including the firings of several U.S. attorneys — which ultimately led to Mr. Gonzales’ resignation in 2007 and is now the subject of a criminal investigation — as well as accusations of meddling on political grounds with the department’s civil rights division and a prestigious hiring program for new lawyers.
The Justice Department’s inspector general even found that Mr. Gonzales mishandled classified documents mere hours after taking over as attorney general.
Mr. Gonzales, a longtime close associate of President Bush, held the attorney general post from 2005 to 2007, after having been White House counsel since 2001.
In 2002, Mr. Gonzales led a meeting where enhanced-interrogation techniques such as waterboarding were discussed in detail and to which he raised no objections.
In 2001, Mr. Gonzales asked John Yoo of the Office of Legal Counsel for the legal opinions that became known as the “torture memos.” A Jan. 25, 2002, memo suggests that Geneva Conventions protections for prisoners of war did not apply to Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan or al Qaeda suspects held worldwide.
In that memo, Mr. Gonzales said the United States was fighting “a new type of warfare - one not contemplated in 1949 when Geneva was framed,” a type of war that “renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.” The memo also suggested that a president was not restricted by prohibitions on torture of prisoners, owing to his “complete authority over the conduct of war.”
Those memos have led to calls for disbarment, prosecution or other legal sanction against Mr. Gonzales and other Bush administration attorneys.