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US Attorney General Gonzales announces resignation, ending controversial tenure

US Attorney General Gonzales announces resignation, ending controversial tenure

Alberto Gonzales, a longtime friend and political ally of U.S. President George W. Bush, announced on Monday his resignation as attorney general. His departure will end a nasty, monthslong standoff over his honesty and competence at the helm of the Justice Department.
Bush's loss of perhaps his most loyal Cabinet member, whose career in Texas and later in Washington was inextricably linked to Bush, is another blow to the beleaguered president. Burdened by the extremely unpopular Iraq war, Bush's poll numbers have reached depths seldom experienced by a president.
Republicans and Democrats alike had demanded Gonzales' resignation over the botched handling of FBI terror investigations and the dismissals of federal prosecutors. Bush had stood defiantly by his friend until finally accepting his resignation during the weekend.
"After months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to submit his resignation, and I have accepted his decision," Bush said Monday from Texas, where he was vacationing.
He spoke after Gonzales announced his departure in Washington. "It has been one of my greatest privileges to lead the Department of Justice," Gonzales said. His resignation will take effect Sept. 17.
Gonzales will be the fourth high-ranking administration official to leave since November 2006. Donald H. Rumsfeld, an architect of the Iraq war, resigned as defense secretary one day after the November elections gave Democrats majorities in both chambers of Congress. Paul Wolfowitz, another major personality behind the war, agreed in May to step down as president of the World Bank after an ethics inquiry. Top Bush political adviser Karl Rove announced this month that he was quitting.
Gonzales, formerly Bush's White House counsel, served 2 1/2 years as the first Hispanic attorney general, the United States' top law enforcer. Lawmakers had voiced doubts about his truthfulness in combative and often evasive testimony to Congress, involving both the FBI's conduct in investigating suspected terrorists and whether Gonzales' department fired a number of federal prosecutors for political reasons in collaboration with the White House.
In announcing his decision, Gonzales linked on his up-from-the-bootstraps life story as the son of migrant farm workers from Mexico who did not finish elementary school.
"Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days," Gonzales said.
Bush said Solicitor General Paul Clement, the government's top lawyer, will be acting attorney general until a replacement is found.
Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff was among those mentioned as possible successors. However, a senior administration official said the matter had not been raised with Chertoff. Bush leaves Washington next Monday for Australia, and Gonzales' replacement might not be named by then, the official said.
"Better late than never," said Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, summing up the response of many in Washington to Gonzales' resignation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Gonzales "was never the right man for this job. He lacked independence, he lacked judgment, and he lacked the spine to say no to Karl Rove."
Reid said Gonzales' record still faces scrutiny. "This resignation is not the end of the story. Congress must get to the bottom of this mess and follow the facts where they lead, into the White House," Reid warned.
Bush steadfastly, at times angrily, refused to give in to critics, even from his own Republican Party, who argued that Gonzales should go. The president grew irritated at a news conference this month when asked about a perceived lack of accountability in his administration and turned the tables on the Democratic Congress.
"Implicit in your questions is that Al Gonzales did something wrong. I haven't seen Congress say he's done anything wrong," Bush said testily.
Gonzales, 52, called Bush on Friday to inform him of his resignation. The president had Gonzales to lunch at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on Sunday as a parting gesture.
Reacting to Monday's developments, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said Gonzales' department had "suffered a severe crisis of leadership that allowed our justice system to be corrupted by political influence."
Gonzales could not satisfy critics who said he had lost credibility over the Justice Department's handling of warrantless wiretaps related to the threat of terrorism and the firings of several U.S. attorneys.
As attorney general and earlier as White House counsel, Gonzales pushed for expanded presidential powers, including the eavesdropping authority. He drafted controversial rules for military war tribunals and sought to limit the legal rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay _ prompting lawsuits by civil libertarians who said the government was violating the Constitution in its pursuit of terrorists.
There were indications that the development came suddenly. Bush normally handles Cabinet resignations with efficiency, only allowing news of them to leak when a successor has been chosen and appearing with both the person departing and the replacement when the public announcement was made. That was not to be the case this time, the official said.
The contention over the fired prosecutors proved to be the final straw for Gonzales, whose truthfulness in testimony to Congress was drawn into question.
Lawmakers said the dismissals of the federal prosecutors appeared to be politically motivated, and some of the fired U.S. attorneys said they felt pressured to investigate Democrats before elections. Gonzales maintained that the dismissals were based the prosecutors' lackluster performance records.
Thousands of documents released by the Justice Department show a White House plot, hatched shortly after the 2004 elections, to replace U.S. attorneys. At one point, senior White House officials, including Rove, suggested replacing all 93 prosecutors. In December 2006, eight were ordered to resign.
In several House and Senate hearings into the firings, Gonzales and other Justice Department officials failed to explain the ousters fully without contradicting each other.
U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, and can be removed. But congressional Democrats said politics played an unusually critical role in the ouster of several prosecutors.
In 2004, Gonzales pressed to reauthorize a secret domestic spying program over the Justice Department's protests. Gonzales was White House counsel at the time and during a dramatic hospital confrontation he and then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card sought approval from then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was hospitalized in intensive care. Ashcroft refused.
The White House subsequently reauthorized the program without the department's approval. Later, Bush ordered changes to the program to help the department defend its legality. The domestic surveillance program was later declared unconstitutional by a federal judge and since has been changed to require court approval before surveillance can be conducted.
Similarly, Gonzales found himself on the defensive in early March for the FBI's improper and, in some cases, illegal prying into Americans' personal information during terror and spy probes. On March 9, the Justice Department's inspector general released an audit showing that FBI agents, over a three-year period, demanded telephone and Internet companies to hand over their customers' personal information without official authorization.
The damning audit also found that the FBI had improperly obtained telephone records in nonemergency circumstances and concluded that it underreported to Congress how often it had used national security letters, emergency documents provided without judicial authority, to ask businesses to turn over customer data.
Gonzales declared himself upset and frustrated over the findings. But lawmakers said they had begun to lose confidence in him.
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Associated Press writers Lara Jakes Jordan contributed to this report from Peru, Vermont, Jennifer Loven from Waco, Texas, and AP White House Correspondent Terence Hunt from Washington.


Updated : 2021-06-24 14:14 GMT+08:00