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U.S.: Attorney General Nominee Undermined Rights

Former White House Counsel Helped U.S. Circumvent International Legal Obligations

Alberto Gonzales is a poor choice for the top law enforcement post in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today. President George W. Bush today nominated Gonzales to replace John Ashcroft as attorney general.

As White House counsel, Gonzales was the architect of the Bush administration’s policy of placing detainees captured in the fight against terrorism beyond the protection of any law. That policy opened the door to brutality against detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay and unfair legal proceedings against them.

“The Attorney General should enforce the law,” said Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch. “Gonzales has helped the president circumvent it. His record suggests that he would be more likely to defer to the President than to uphold basic rights.”

As White House counsel, Gonzales is known to have done the following:

  • He drafted the original military commission order signed by President Bush on November 14, 2001, which would have allowed suspects apprehended in the global campaign against terrorism to be secretly charged, tried, and even executed without the most basic due process protections. This week a federal court halted military commissions because they violate the Geneva Conventions and fair-trial standards.
  • He provided the legal basis for President Bush’s decision on February 7, 2002, claiming that, as the president, he has the constitutional authority to deny protections of the Geneva Conventions to persons picked up during the war in Afghanistan. In his January 25, 2002 memorandum, Gonzales argued that the Geneva Conventions protections—including its “strict limitations on questioning enemy prisoners”—were rendered “obsolete” and “quaint” by the war on terror. Gonzales ignored the warnings of senior military officers that his position on the Geneva Conventions would undermine respect for law in the U.S. military.
  • He solicited the August 2002 torture memo from the Justice Department, which contended that the President has “commander-in-chief authority” to order torture and proposed potential legal defense for U.S. officials accused of torture. Gonzales has never publicly revealed his views about the memo.

“During confirmation hearings, Gonzales must account for the positions he took and the decisions he helped make as White House counsel,” said Fellner.

Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. Senate to ask for all the memoranda and other documents drafted or approved by the Office of the White House Counsel regarding the interrogation and treatment of detainees in the fight against terrorism and legal proceedings against them. The White House has thus far refused to release a complete set of documents reflecting the development of its policies regarding terrorism suspects, including documents signed by Gonzales.

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