WASHINGTON – The Justice Department bade Alberto Gonzales farewell Friday, with the attorney general’s aides expressing admiration for his humility, his efforts to protect children, and his push for a stronger legal framework to fight terrorism.
Months of hounding endured by the former Texas Supreme Court justice went mostly unmentioned. But he leaves office tarred by allegations that he lied to Congress about the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, turned the department into a partisan tool, and pushed claims of presidential authority too far.
“History’s judgment will be that Judge Gonzales has played a decisive part in making the country safer and stronger while protecting the constitutional rights of Americans,” said Steve Bradbury, the department’s chief legal counsel. “His support for our efforts has been solid and steady, just as his mild demeanor has been utterly unflappable under sometimes unbelievable and very public pressures and criticism.”
The program was titled “Farewell Celebration” and it was easy to imagine that critics – and some White House allies who had long viewed him as a political liability – were in fact celebrating his departure.
“You can see a lot of change in morale,” said one Justice Department tax lawyer, who asked not to be identified to avoid endangering his career.
Outside, dozens of demonstrators yelled such taunts as “Finally, justice at the Justice Department,” and chanted, “Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye!”
Inside, more than 350 people crammed the department’s Great Hall as the first Hispanic attorney general gave his final speech, his voice straining as spoke of his “many wonderful memories” from his truncated tenure.
He thanked President Bush, who placed Gonzales in all his public posts, for the opportunities. And he noted that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “came to define much of our work.” Within hours, Gonzales, who was White House counsel at the time, began the effort to broaden executive powers.
Those moves – expanding warrantless wiretaps; allowing indefinite detention of enemy fighters at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; authorizing interrogation techniques that critics view as torture – have damaged him and the administration politically.
Gonzales said that based on what he’s heard in his daily intelligence briefings, serious threats persist. “As I depart, I wish – I wish that I could tell you that our work is done, that there are no threats. But I cannot,” he said. “Our enemy is resourceful and determined, and I will wonder and worry when I am gone what is being said in those briefings.”
A handful of top administration officials turned out for the ceremony, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Gonzales’ next move isn’t yet clear.