Professor Gonzales' Critique

Professor Gonzales' Critique

By Ruben Navarrette - March 14, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- Some civil libertarians have finally figured out that on the question of how Barack Obama's anti-terrorism policies compare to those of George W. Bush, "hope and change" means more of the same.

It could also mean vindication for a Bush administration official liberals love to hate. We'll check in with him in a moment.

But first, the American Civil Liberties Union recently placed a full-page ad in The New York Times showing Obama morphing into Bush. What concerns the organization is that Obama is considering reversing Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to try accused architects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in criminal court and instead ordering the defendants to be tried in military tribunals. The ad reads: "As president, Barack Obama must decide whether he will keep his solemn promise to restore our Constitution and due process, or ignore his vow and continue the Bush-Cheney policies."

Where has the ACLU been? Obama made the decision to continue the Bush-Cheney policies long ago. His administration preserved the CIA policy of rendition where the interrogation of terror suspects is outsourced to foreign countries, defended the use of warrantless wiretaps, and continued Bush efforts to quash a lawsuit that challenged both practices. And just recently, a Justice Department-led task force concluded that nearly 50 of the 188 Guantanamo detainees should be held without trial, in violation of habeas corpus.

Dick Cheney called it. Shortly before leaving office, he predicted that Obama would, in fighting terror, find extremely useful the executive powers that the Bush administration had claimed, and would be reluctant to relinquish the tools. That's just what happened.

While this has been going on, the ACLU has been largely AWOL. But, for some reason, the chance of an administration flip-flop on trying terror suspects in civilian courts woke the organization from its slumber -- and produced the ad.

Good. I like the ad. I'm fed up with liberals grading Obama on the curve when they handed out failing grades to Bush for carrying out the same policies.

I was curious about how all this was playing at Texas Tech University where, every Monday and Wednesday, there is a 90-minute undergraduate course titled "Contemporary Issues in the Executive Branch." The professor is someone who, in his last job, was savaged by the ACLU and other liberals for supposedly running roughshod over the Constitution in the war on terror.

Given the irony of recent events, I asked the professor -- former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales -- if he was feeling vindicated.

"I don't know," he replied. "I leave it to others to decide whether we've been vindicated. I know that we did the very best we could within the Constitution to protect our country. We had to take some pretty tough measures and there was criticism, but I think we have been safer in part because of those measures."

Gonzales doesn't hold a grudge for being run from office by an unseemly left-wing witch hunt intended to impugn the integrity of a Bush confidant. Instead, he thinks of his service -- and that of the entire Bush team -- in the context of what historically happens when a president is forced to protect a country at war.

"Every wartime president has taken extraordinary steps," he said, "and every wartime president has been challenged in the courts. Some have been criticized. Some vilified. Just like Bush."

Yet, Gonzales also knows well the limits of executive power.

"As I tell my students, it's dangerous to take the position that we want the president to do whatever it takes to protect our country," he said. "Even I don't subscribe to that. We want our president, the most powerful person in the world, to be constrained by the Constitution."

Gonzales even musters some sympathy for Obama.

"I think once you get into office," he said, "you quickly realize how hard these issues are."

It's a lesson that the professor learned the hard way.

"The one thing that I do emphasize a lot in my class is that mistakes happen at this level because these are the hardest decisions that anyone could possibly confront," Gonzales said.

"Sometimes, you have to make decisions very quickly. You wish you had more information. But sometimes you've got to make a decision. And at this level, you're going to make mistakes."

The ACLU thinks the Obama administration is making more than its share of them. But keeping America safe is a tough job. It's a lesson liberals are finally starting to learn.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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