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Alberto Gonzales

Gonzales Testimony belongs in "Gibberish Hall of Fame"

April 19, 2007 -

Area: Washington, DC (Hagerstown)

The testimony given Thursday by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing to investigate the firing of eight United States attorneys deserves a place of high honor in the Gibberish Hall of Fame. It was astonishing in its vapidity, almost to a point beyond description. The emptiness of Gonzales's answers, after several hours, became the political version of a Zen koan. They simply stopped my mind.

It was, in the main, an unspeakably gruesome performance. The aspect most commentators immediately seized on was the amazing number of questions Mr. Gonzales answered with either "I don't recall," or some permutation thereof. Estimates put the final count somewhere between 74 and 100 "dunno" replies, an amount truly Reaganesqe in stature.

There was no bristling give-and-take during this hearing, no fiery debate, no "Have you no sense of decency" moment when the rogue official is brought snarling to bay. Indeed, the only time tempers flared was when exasperated senators became fed up with Gonzales's inability to answer virtually any of the questions put to him. The annoyed senators, Republican and Democratic alike, at several points rained condescendingly rhetorical questions upon him in extremis, expecting no answers because they knew none were ever going to come.

Judiciary Committee member Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican senator from Oklahoma, dropped one of the more devastating bricks of the day after slogging through Gonzales's feeble display. "It was handled incompetently," said Coburn of the firings that inspired this hearing, if not of the testimony he'd just endured. "The communication was atrocious, it was inconsistent. It's generous to say that there were misstatements; that's a generous statement. And I believe you ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered. And I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation."

The sentiment was repeated in the waning moments of the hearing by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who said: "Mr. Attorney General, at the beginning of the hearing, we laid out the burden of proof for you to meet, to answer questions directly and fully, to show that you were truly in charge of the Justice Department, and most of all, to convincingly explain who, when and why the eight US attorneys were fired. You've answered 'I don't know' or 'I can't recall' to close to a hundred questions."

"You're not familiar with much of the workings of your own department," continued Schumer. "And we still don't have convincing explanations of the who, when and why in regard to the firing of the majority of the eight US attorneys. Thus, you haven't met any of these three tests. I don't see any point in another round of questions. And I urge you to re-examine your performance and, for the good of the department and the good of the country, step down."

Dana Bash of CNN reported comments made by appalled Republicans during breaks in the hearing. "Loyal Republican after loyal Republican in this hearing room," said Bash, "and more specifically in private to CNN today, have made it clear that they are frankly flabbergasted by how poorly they think the attorney general has done in this hearing. During the lunch break, in private, several very loyal Republicans made it clear to CNN that they were really dripping with disappointment."

Another CNN reporter, Suzanne Malveaux, offered other Republican statements of dismay. "Two senior White House aides here," reported Malveaux, "described the situation, Gonzales's testimony, as 'going down in flames.' That he was 'not doing himself any favors.' One prominent Republican described watching his testimony as 'clubbing a baby seal.'"


So what is to be made of this? As attorney general, Gonzales is the top official in the Department of Justice. The list of DOJ-related agencies that Gonzales is expected to oversee is nearly 60 items long. Among these are the FBI, the ATF, the DEA, the Civil Rights division, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the US Marshals Service, the Office of the Solicitor General and, of course, all the US attorneys spread across the 50 states. The DOJ's own web site explains that, "Since the 1870 Act that established the Department of Justice as an executive department of the government of the United States, the attorney general has guided the world's largest law office and the central agency for enforcement of federal laws."

Is it possible that the man charged with such awesome responsibilities is, in fact, a blithering idiot? Nothing in Thursday's hearing served to disabuse anyone of this notion, and in the final analysis that may be the whole point of the exercise ... and the tip of a very dangerous iceberg.

Allegations have been raised that the Bush administration sought to use the US attorneys' offices within key battleground states, along with political appointees within the DOJ's Civil Rights division, as a hammer to break apart voting protections for minorities. "For six years," reported Greg Gordon in the Baltimore Sun, "the Bush administration, aided by Justice Department political appointees, has pursued an aggressive legal effort to restrict voter turnout in key battleground states in ways that favor Republican political candidates, according to former department lawyers and a review of written records. The administration intensified its efforts last year as President Bush's popularity and Republican support eroded heading into a midterm battle for control of Congress, which the Democrats won."

"Questions about the administration's campaign against alleged voter fraud," continued Gordon, "have helped fuel the political tempest over the firings last year of eight US attorneys, several of whom were ousted in part because they failed to bring voter fraud cases important to Republican politicians.... On virtually every significant decision affecting election balloting since 2001, the division's Voting Rights Section has come down on the side of Republicans, notably in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Washington, and other states where recent elections have been decided by narrow margins."

Beyond that is the specific case of California US Attorney Carol Lam, who prosecuted and convicted Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham in a massive Congressional bribery scandal. Lam was later fired from her position, supposedly because she was failing to effectively prosecute immigration cases, or something to that effect. (Mr. Gonzales could not actually recall exactly why Lam was sacked, to nobody's great surprise.)

However, allegations have been raised that she was actually removed because her investigations into Cunningham were leading her closer to the centers of Republican power. Back in March, none other than Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania raised the issue on the Senate floor. Specter openly questioned whether Lam had been removed because she was "about to investigate other people who were politically powerful."

On the surface, yesterday's hearing and the galaxy of un-recollections offered by Gonzales may seem to have been a waste of time. In fact, this was a revelatory moment of grave import. Decisions to disrupt elections and voting rights, decisions to derail investigations into Republicans, are made for political reasons by political people. In this administration, the political people all work in the White House.

There can be little doubt, after yesterday, that Alberto Gonzales was elevated to his position by Bush to affect a political takeover of the Justice Department. The muscular legal arm of federal power became just another tool to establish Karl Rove's dream of a permanent Republican majority in government by disrupting the vote and by obscuring GOP corruption. Thus, it doesn't matter if the attorney general is a pudding, because there were other chefs in the kitchen at Justice.

It can be easily argued that Gonzales couldn't answer simple questions, not because he is especially dumb, but because he truly didn't know how. He wasn't there to run the place, but to open doors for, and get out of the way of, Bush's political hatchetmen. Any appointees who weren't going along with the program, including those fired US attorneys, were swept aside.

It can just as easily be argued that he was able to answer those questions, but avoided doing so for tactical reasons. The New York Times's editorial on Friday raised this line of thinking by stating: "At the end of the day, we were left wondering why the nation's chief law-enforcement officer would paint himself as a bumbling fool. Perhaps it's because the alternative is that he is not telling the truth. There is strong evidence that this purge was directed from the White House, and that Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's top political adviser, and Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, were deeply involved."

Either way, subpoenas need to be delivered to the hatchetman-in-chief, Karl Rove, as well as to members of his crew, to gather their sworn public testimony on the matter. It was made clear Thursday that Gonzales wasn't in charge at Justice, and Rove appears likely to have been the man who stood in his stead. Why? That's why we ask questions.

For the record, decisions to disrupt elections and voting rights, and decisions to derail investigations into Republicans, are flatly illegal. The first is fraud, the second is obstruction of justice, and both are felony crimes. The exposure of Gonzales on Thursday represents a long step towards pinning legal accountability to the door of a certain Pennsylvania Avenue house, and to the lapels of those persons within who are, at last, running out of excuses.

William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: "War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know" and "The Greatest Sedition Is Silence." His newest book, "House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation," is now available from PoliPointPress.

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