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“The Largest Law Enforcement Agency in America Has Been Manipulated for Political Purposes”–Rep Conyers on Gonzales Legacy

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After months of calls for his resignation, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales finally resigned on Monday. He had been at the center of numerous congressional investigations including the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, the overall politicization of the Justice Department and the Bush administration’s secret warrantless domestic surveillance operation. We speak with House Judiciary Chair Rep. John Conyers. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After months of calls for his resignation, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales finally resigned Monday, just two weeks after one of his chief backers in the administration, Karl Rove, stepped down. Gonzales had been at the center of numerous congressional investigations, including the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, the overall politicization of the White House, and the Bush administration’s secret warrantless domestic surveillance operation.

Besides serving as attorney general, Gonzales was one of Bush’s closest allies in Washington. For the past 13 years, Bush has been Gonzales’s only boss. In 1994 he was named general counsel to then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, later appointed and became secretary of state of Texas, then to a seat on the Texas Supreme Court. Once Bush was elected, he named Gonzales White House counsel. Then in 2005, Bush tapped him to replace Attorney General John Ashcroft.

On Monday, President Bush held a short news conference to announce he reluctantly accepted Gonzales’s resignation.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: After months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign his position. And I accept his decision. It’s sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeding from doing important work, because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: An hour earlier, Gonzales held one of the shortest news conferences in recent memory. It lasted one minute, 41 seconds. He never said why he was resigning.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Yesterday I met with President Bush and informed him of my decision to conclude my government service as attorney general of the United States, effective as of September 17, 2007. Let me say that it has been one of my greatest privileges to lead the Department of Justice. I have great admiration and respect for the men and women who work here. I have made a point as attorney general to personally meet as many of them as possible, and today I want to, again, thank them for their service to our nation. It is through their continued work that our country and our communities remain safe, that the rights and civil liberties of our citizens are protected and the hopes and dreams of all of our children are secured.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush has named Solicitor General Paul Clement to be the interim U.S. attorney general. He has worked for former Attorney General John Ashcroft and Justice Antonin Scalia and is a former member of the Federalist Society. Three years ago, he represented the government in the Supreme Court case Padilla v. Rumsfeld. He insisted the U.S. does not engage in torture.

Congressmember John Conyers joins us on the phone now, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which has been investigating Gonzales’s role in the politicization of the Justice Department and the warrantless domestic spy program. We’re also joined by Scott Horton, Columbia law professor and contributor to Harper’s magazine, where he writes the blog, ” No Comment.”

Congressmember John Conyers, your reaction to the resignation of Alberto Gonzales?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Good morning, Amy Goodman, the most distinguished communicator of news in this country. I am happy to be on your program.

To me, it was a sad day that the attorney general resigned, for the following reasons. What he did was leave amid a cloud of suspicion that the Department of Justice, the largest law enforcement agency in America, has been manipulated for political purposes. He didn’t make any mention in this very brief statement about why he was resigning. And, of course, the suspicion among many of us is that it was only when the president wanted him to leave would he ever resign anyway. And so, for him to resign as a patriot, and then the President to attack those who are seeking answers into the nine firings of U.S. attorneys for what we think are political reasons, continues this kind of a veil that the president always uses to defend his conduct. And so, the thought that the attorney general decided to resign unilaterally, to me, doesn’t make much sense.

But in addition to leaving the department in shambles, we’ve got the question of national security letters that were issued, thousands of people detained indefinitely, non-enforcement of voter rights, and permitting torture against our conventional treaties, all go toward a very, very sad legacy that he leaves as attorney general.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does this leave the congressional investigations, the Justice Committee, your committee’s investigations into these issues?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: The Judiciary Committee in the House continues on. As the attorney general knows, this does not release him from any obligation to respond to our invitations to come or to be subpoenaed or to be held in contempt.

But at this point, the more interesting challenge to us is, why is the White House stonewalling Harriet Miers and the chief of staff who has the documents and letters that we need to have, because the firings all clearly lead to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. You needn’t be an investigator or a congressperson to understand that. And so, this doesn’t change anything.

And as a matter of fact, by making this decision when the Congress was in recess and doing it in the way that it was orchestrated only raises the question even to a higher level of what might they be trying to prevent us from finding out?

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of torture, how is the Judiciary Committee pursuing this issue — Gonzales’s role, but beyond Gonzales, the policy that continues?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: We’re continuing to hold hearings. This is going to go on for some time. It’s very clear that they’re resisting the contempt citations for not honoring our process of requiring them to come before us. They’re trying to run the clock out on us. And we’ll likely end up in court. But the investigations will continue. We’ve got so much to find out.

The voter rights department is in shambles. As a matter of fact, they’re now doing reverse voter rights enforcement, where blacks are being found to have violated the rights of white voters in, of all places, the state of Mississippi, where voting resistance has been one of the greatest.

So we’re still in this, and we’re still moving forward as quickly as we can. There’s likely to be a contempt citation voted by the Congress to Harriet Miers for her refusal to even come before the committee to explain that she was using whatever right she chose to use to refuse to honor our subpoena before the Judiciary Committee.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Conyers, it was interesting to see you at this major rally in Newark on Saturday. About more than a thousand people were there. It was the largest demonstration against war and violence at home for decades in Newark. Now, you spoke at the rally. Interestingly, people were there who had been arrested in your office, the 45 in July who had been arrested because they were calling for you to continue to back the call for impeachment of President Bush. What is your response?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, my response is that we have several things to do in — I begin this part of our conversation by indicating that I have nothing but the highest regard for Cindy Sheehan. But the question of how we orchestrate moving a congressional schedule forward of accomplishments — we’re pretty proud of what we’ve done in eight months after having no control over the agenda for 12 years. We also are trying to make sure that we don’t bring resolutions or hearings that would put the election in jeopardy. We could close down the Congress — I have been in more impeachment hearings than anybody in the House or the Senate. And our legislative attempts to reverse so many things would come to a stop. And it is doubtful if we wouldn’t go into an election with not one, but at least two attempts to remove the top executive officers in the country, I don’t think that that can happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Conyers, on the issue of the warrantless wiretapping, on the one hand you’ve had the Democrats going after Gonzales fiercely for the Bush administration’s secret warrantless domestic surveillance program, yet signing off on the recent bill that the Bush administration had pushed for for further warrantless wiretapping.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, the leadership was, of course, against the bill, and the majority of Democrats voted against the bill. But we’ve got this consideration: We’ve got 233 Democrats; 40 of them are Blue Dogs, that is, conservative Democrats that frequently vote Republican. And then we have another group that are new to the Congress in their first term elected from red state congressional districts, which they felt that they would not be able to come back, and we couldn’t get them over. So we didn’t have all of our Democrats. It was not a solid position. But the leadership, Pelosi and I and Reyes, the head of the Intelligence Committee, we pleaded with everybody to vote with us in caucus, and we weren’t able to persuade some of the new members, and we weren’t able to persuade some of the Blue Dogs.

AMY GOODMAN: Why would impeachment hearings put the election in jeopardy?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, because unless I’ve got the Constitution in one hand and a calculator in the other, so I’ve got any kind of hearings on removing both the president and the vice president — or putting it in reverse, remove the vice president and then the president — within the months remaining, would require 218 votes in the House of Representatives. That’s my calculator giving me this information. And then, in the Senate we need two-thirds to convict. Notwithstanding all of my progressive friends that would love to see me start impeachment hearings, those votes I do not think exist in the House of Representatives or in the U.S. Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Congressman Conyers, if you weren’t holding your calculator, if you were just deciding whether impeachment was called for here, what would be the reasons you would list?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: What would be the reasons that I would what?

AMY GOODMAN: What would be the reasons you would list for impeachment, if you weren’t holding your calculator, just holding the Constitution?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Oh, OK. Well, to me, we can accomplish probably as much as we would need to to make the record clear that there has been a great deal of violation of the sworn oath of office, abuses of power, through the hearings and inquiries that we can conduct. But it isn’t that — and no one has ever heard me suggest that we don’t think that there is conduct that could be proven to be impeachable.

But when Ron Dellums and Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug and William Fitts Ryan of New York, when we — Parren Mitchell — when we introduced an impeachment resolution, the first one against a sitting president in over 75 years, when Richard Nixon was being investigated, it was at the beginning of his term. And although he had been overwhelmingly re-elected, there was time for us to have the hearing. This — the timing of an administration which will go down in history as probably one of the most disappointing, there isn’t the time here for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Conyers, we will leave it there, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. I want to thank you very much for joining us on this day after the announcement that Alberto Gonzales had resigned as attorney general, effective September 17. Thank you.

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