Alberto Gonzales is hounded by a single word. It starts with “t”.
“I’m known as the architect of torture,” Gonzales told me by phone from Nashville, where the former U.S. attorney general is now a lawyer in private practice and dean of the College of Law at Belmont University.
Anyone saddled with that title must be evil and sadistic. Gonzales is neither. Still, architect is a promotion over what snarky liberals on websites such as Democratic Underground and the Daily Kos call the first Latino attorney general — “torture boy.” If you think this insult doesn’t have a racial component to it, you’re dreaming.
I contacted Gonzales after Democratic staffers with the Senate Intelligence Committee put out a 499-page executive summary (of a 6,700-page report, which is still classified) containing graphic details of CIA interrogation tactics after the attacks of Sept.11, 2001.
Gonzales is skeptical of the final product: “Some of the details, if true, are troubling. There is bad stuff in there. I just don’t trust the validity of the report.”
Nor should the rest of us. Not a single former CIA director was interviewed. No one accused of torture was contacted.
Having resigned in 2007 amid a dust-up involving the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, Gonzales knows that truth can be a casualty of politics.
“I have painful experience of dealing with Senate Democrats who are not above saying things that are completely untrue if it serves their agenda,” he said.
The torture report — which took nearly six years to write — insists the agency went too far. “Under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, the chair of the Intelligence Committee who shepherded the report.
CIA officials insist that Feinstein and Senate Democrats were briefed more than three dozen times from 2002 to 2009. Now the senators are acting as if they have clean hands. The CIA meets CYA.
But what does alleged misbehavior by the CIA have to do with Gonzales? Not much.
The legal justification for what critics call “torture” came from the Justice Department, but Gonzales didn’t take the reins there until 2005. Most of the dispatches justifying enhanced interrogation — the so-called “torture memos” — were written from 2002 to 2004. And while some have tried to accuse Gonzales of authoring those memos, they were, according to news reports, written by Jay Bybee, John Yoo and Steven Bradbury — all of whom worked for the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department.
Gonzales did write an infamous 2002 memo dismissing as “quaint” some provisions of the Geneva Conventions.
Those are the facts. Just don’t expect them to deter leftist groups such as Code Pink from claiming that Gonzales is a war criminal.
His alleged crime? Gonzales told me that, while acting as White House counsel from 2001 to 2005, he provided President George W. Bush with advice on the legality and efficacy of enhanced interrogation.
And yet, Gonzales said, when decisions were made about how to treat detainees, a whole roomful of lawyers participated — from the CIA, the Defense Department, State Department, Justice Department and the White House counsel’s office.
I was curious as to why Gonzales thought he had become, for some critics, a convenient villain.
“We’ve been trying to figure that out for years, you and me,” he said. “I have no idea.”
I have some idea. There has long been in this country a racist stereotype that anyone who traces his ancestry to Latin America is predisposed to violence. When liberals see Gonzales, they see revolutions, Central American death squads and Mexican drug cartels. It’s easy to believe that he supports torture.
Even so, Gonzales seems at peace.
“In government, you can’t expect people to think of what you do in a fair way,” he said. “All you can do is explain what you’re doing and why. I still think we can protect America in a way that is consistent with our values and the law.”
Gonzales is no stranger to controversy. But it isn’t something you get used to. Students and faculty at Belmont, a small Christian college, are circulating a petition to get him fired because of the role they think he played in shaping the interrogation tactics detailed in the Senate report.
So what if the dots don’t connect. It sounds as though Gonzales’ critics aren’t thinking at all. That part, he is used to.