Floor Statement of Senator Barack Obama on the Nomination of Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General

Floor Statement of Senator Barack Obama on the Nomination of Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General
by Barack Obama

Delivered on 3 February 2005

A few days ago, the world watched as the seeds of democracy began to take root in Iraq. As a result of the sheer courage of the Iraqi people and the untold sacrifices of American soldiers, the success of the elections showed just how far people will go to achieve self-government and rule of law.

As Americans, we can take pride in the fact that this kind of courage has been inspired by our own struggle for freedom...by the tradition of democratic law secured by our forefathers and enshrined in our Constitution.

It's a tradition that says all men are created equal under the law - and that no one is above it.

That's why, even within the Executive Branch, there is an office dedicated to enforcing the laws of the land and applying them to people and Presidents alike.

In this sense, the Attorney General is not like the other Cabinet posts. Unlike the Secretary of State, who is the public face of the President's foreign policy, or the Secretary of Education, whose job it is to carry out the President's education policy, the Attorney General's job is not just to enforce the President's laws. It is to tell the President what the law is. The job is not simply to facilitate the President's power, it is to speak truth to that power as well.

The job is to protect and defend the laws and the freedoms for which so many have sacrificed so much.

The President is not the Attorney General's client - the people are. And so the true test of an Attorney General nominee is whether that person is ready to put the Constitution of the people before the political agenda of the President. As such, I cannot approach this nomination the same way I approached that of Secretary of State Rice or VA Secretary Nicholson or any other Cabinet position. The standard is simply higher.

I wanted to give Alberto Gonzales the benefit of the doubt when we began this process. His story is inspiring - especially for so many of us who have shared in achieving his American Dream. And I have no question that, as White House counsel, he has served his President and his country to the best of his ability. But, in my judgment, these positive qualities alone are not sufficient to warrant confirmation as the top law enforcement officer in the land.

I had hoped that during his hearings Judge Gonzales would ease my concerns about some of the legal advice he gave to the President. And I had hoped he would prove that he has the ability to distance himself from his role as the President's lawyer so that he could perform his new role as the people's lawyer.

Sadly, rather than full explanations during these hearings, I heard equivocation. Rather than independence, I heard an unyielding insistence on protecting the President's prerogative.

I did not hear Mr. Gonzales repudiate two and a half years of official U.S. policy which has defined torture so narrowly that only organ failure and death would qualify. A policy that he himself appears to have helped develop the dubious legal rationale for. Imagine that. If the entire world accepted the definition contained in the Department of Justice memos, we can only imagine what atrocities might befall our American POWs. How, in a world without such basic constraints would we feel about sending our sons and daughters to war? How, if we are willing to rationalize torture through legalisms and semantics, can we claim to our children, and the children of the world, that America is different, and represents a higher moral standard?

This policy isn't just a moral failure, it's a violation of half a century of international law. Yet while Mr. Gonzales' job was White House Counsel, he said nothing to the President.

He showed no ability to speak with responsible moral clarity then, and he's indicated that he still has no intention to speak such truths now. During his recent testimony, he refused to refute a conclusion of the torture memo which stated that the President has the power to override our laws when acting as Commander-in-Chief. Think about that -- the nation's top law enforcement officer telling its most powerful citizen that if the situation warrants, he can break the law from time to time.

The truth is, Mr. Gonzales has raised serious doubts about whether, given the choice between the Constitution and the President's political agenda, he would put our Constitution first. And that is why I simply cannot support his nomination for Attorney General.

I understand that Judge Gonzales will most likely be confirmed anyway, and I look forward to working together with him in that new role. But I also hope that once in office, he'll take the lessons of this debate to heart.

You know, before serving in this distinguished body, I had the privilege of teaching law for ten years at the University of Chicago. And among the brilliant minds to leave that institution for government service was a former Dean of the Law School named Edward Levi. A man of impeccable integrity who was committed to the rule of law before politics, Levi was chosen by President Ford to serve as Attorney General in the wake of Watergate. The President courageously chose to appoint him not because Dean Levi was a yes man, not because he was a loyal political soldier, but so that he could restore the public's confidence in a badly damaged Justice Department - so that he could restore the public's trust in the ability of our leaders to follow the law.

While he has raised serious doubts about his ability to follow this example, Judge Gonzales can still choose to restore our trust. He can still choose to put the Constitution first. I hope for our country's sake, he will. To start with, he should take these three steps upon assuming his new role:

1. He can immediately repudiate the terror memos and ensure that the Department of Defense is not using any of its recommendations to craft interrogation policy. 2. He can restore the credibility of his former position as Legal Counsel by appointing an independent-minded, universally respected lawyer to the post. 3. And he can provide Congress regular, detailed reports on his efforts to live up to the President's stated zero-tolerance policy toward torture.

Today, we are engaged in a deadly global struggle with those who would intimidate, torture, and murder people for exercising the most basic freedoms. If we are to win this struggle and spread those freedoms, we must keep our own moral compass pointed in a true direction. The Attorney General is one figure charged with doing this, but to do it well he must demonstrate a higher loyalty than to just the President. He must demonstrate a loyalty to the ideals that continue to inspire a nation, and hopefully, the world.