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President Bush Nominates Alberto Gonzalez as Attorney General

November 10, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Now, a look at the landscape John Ashcroft has left for his likely replacement with two senators who will be asked to confirm him: Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, in line to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee next year; and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the committee.

Sen. Specter, I’d like to start with you and read something that Ashcroft said in his five-page handwritten resignation letter to the president.

He said, “The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved.” Would you agree with that?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I think that a good start has been made with the Homeland Security Department having been established under Secretary Ridge, very, very substantial federal appropriations.

We’ve moved on quite a number of fronts, but the threat of terrorism is pervasive. We are facing a shadowy enemy.

We fortunately have not had an attack, buts months ago the FBI director said we would be attacked between the summer and the election; that has not happened.

But more needs to be done because it is a gigantic problem but I think a good start has been made.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Leahy, what is your reaction to Mr. Ashcroft’s parting statement?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: We all hope that the threat of terror is down. That is not a Democratic or a Republican position. I think we still face a significant threat of terrorism.

This is not like the Cold War where we can say, well, we’ve got a bigger army than you have or something like that. We don’t… here in the United States, we don’t face an army marching against us or an air force or a navy.

We are too powerful for that. We do face a dozen people motivated by either hatred or religious zeal or whatever, who may have a weapon significant or mass destruction. And you have to guard against that. This country will always have to guard against that.

And the same can be said about many if not most of our allies. What we want to do is make sure the tools are used the right way.

We’ve seen the courts overturn a whole lot of the steps taken by the Justice Department in the past few months.

When I spoke with Judge Gonzales today, I told him I thought that one of the things we would want to do is to make sure if mistakes were made, we correct those.

All of us want him to succeed in the fight against terror and the fight against crime.

GWEN IFILL: If I may continue with you, Sen. Leahy, you have been one of the leading critics of Gen. Ashcroft, what you feel to be his impingements on civil liberties and his enforcement of the Patriot Act.

In your conversation with Judge Gonzales, did you have any sense that that is something that he is also concerned about or that you will be satisfied on?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: No. We went into some of the areas of the questioning.

As you know, former Congressman Dick Armey and I put into the Patriot Act sunset provisions, a number of parts where there are a number of people, who are conservatives and liberals who would like to see the sunset go into effect.

Others would like to see it modified. I told him that’s one of the issues we would in all likelihood raise — both Republicans and Democrats would in his hearing, as well as the memos as you’ve already mentioned, Abu Ghraib.

But this is… there is a case that the president could have sent up a very contentious nominee. He did not. I commend him for that.

I think the American people, as divided as we are, would like to see an attorney general who would be one more to bring us together than to drive us apart.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Specter, how would you compare Gen. Ashcroft who served the complete four years of the first Bush term to Alberto Gonzales who also served the first full years as White House counsel?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I think that Sen. Leahy has put his finger on a very important point.

And I’m glad that as Pat said the nominee has been set up who is not contentious.

GWEN IFILL: But if I may just interrupt you. Gen. Ashcroft was a contentious nominee four years ago.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well there was a lot of controversy.

No I know John Ashcroft very well. I served with him in the Senate for six years, sat next to him on the Judiciary Committee and I was confident in voting for his confirmation. He had a very tough position to balance law enforcement with civil liberties. And it’s a very difficult balance to strike.

You are always going to find somebody who is objecting somewhere. I think that Judge Gonzales started off on the right note when he talked about justice for all Americans.

And I believe that that’s a very, very important consideration.

The Patriot Act was important when it dealt with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which had a wall, so that when evidence was acquired on a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant showing criminality, it couldn’t be used.

And that wall came down and it was sensibly so.

I think we have to take a look at the issue of going after private documents to use the traditional probable cause with a search and seizure warrant, which is something which will be taken up when we reconsider the Patriot Act this year.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Leahy, obviously Mr. Gonzales goes back a long way with President Bush.

Would you prefer or does it matter to you at all that the new attorney general would be so close, does not seem to have had that much independence from the White House, necessarily?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, historically, we’ve had a lot of presidents who have had people close to them as attorney general, the closest of course being President John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.

But I think the most important thing, whoever is attorney general, they have to realize while they serve at the request of the president, they really serve all Americans, not just the president; but 280 million others.

This is a person who protects our civil liberties, or supposed to, our civil rights, protects us from crime, from terror, and you can’t take a position in most things – well, we’ll protect Democrats and not Republicans or Republicans but not Democrats.

Both Sen. Specter and I served as prosecutors before we were here. You learn very quickly in these areas you can’t play favorites, and you can’t take sides. You have to do your job.

You have to protect the people. I said that to Judge Gonzales and I think that that’s going to be the central question asked.

And I was pleased with what he said about having been a judge. He knows that you have to step back and you have to be fair to all people.

And I would hope that the White House realizes they cannot have an attorney general do the bidding of the White House. They have to have an attorney general to do the bidding of the Constitution.

n. Leahy and I have worked well together in the past and I’m optimistic we can continue that good working relationship.

GWEN IFILL: And I want to get to Sen. Leahy on that, but I want to ask you first since we’ve opened the door to this question, Sen. Specter, you have become the subject of controversy about whether you indeed can get the support of your members of your own Republican Caucus to become chairman because of concern among conservative supporters about your pro-choice or your anti-abortion credentials, depending on how you look at that.

Where does that stand tonight?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I think that my record is plain, that I have never had a litmus test on confirmation of Supreme Court nominees.

I supported Chief Justice Rehnquist for confirmation after he had voted against Roe Versus Wade, supported strong pro-life nominees Justice Scalia, Justice Kennedy.

And when Justice Clarence Thomas was nominated, the pro-life Justice, I led the fight for his confirmation which almost cost me a Senate seat. There is no doubt that there are people who would like to see me not become chairman. They came to Pennsylvania, and we waged a very tough primary fight.

And I won and it’s the same group. I’m the only pro-choice Republican on the Judiciary Committee, but I’ve handled very contentious hearings.

The one I think about was Ruby Ridge where we had Randy Weaver come in after his wife and daughter – wife and son were killed on Ruby Ridge and said if he had known he would be so fairly treated, he would have come off the mountain a long time ago.

And FBI Director Louis Freeh – let me finish one more sentence – FBI Director Louis Freeh changed his rules of engagement and Sen. Leahy was on that subcommittee.

I have a record for fairness and no litmus test and the president has noted my commitment to report the nominees out promptly, and as Karl Rove said over the weekend, Arlen Specter keeps his word and we’ll take him at his word. Nobody has ever questioned my integrity.

GWEN IFILL: So have you received assurances from Sen. Frist and Sen. Santorum that they will support your elevation?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I don’t think it is advisable for me to talk about my conversations with Sen. Frist or any specific senators.

But I will say that I have been talking to my colleagues and within the generalization, I’ve had supportive responses.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Sen. Leahy, I do want to get back to what you’re concerned about, if you have any — about Mr. Gonzales’s nomination because there have been questions raised about his role in the detainees issue that we mentioned earlier and there have been questions raised about whether the Patriot Act will be renewed under this new attorney general.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I raised with him when I talked with him today, that of course we are going to ask questions about the memo on the detainees of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the question about whether the Geneva Convention should be set aside and his role in that.

We’ve asked these questions before; those questions of course will be asked. He fully expects that to be. The Congress has to make the final choice whether you renew the Patriot Act or not.

Under the amendment that Dick Armey and I put in, parts of it expire this coming year. The Congress has to make that decision. Of course we’ll want to hear what the president and the attorney general want to say.

But these are all questions… they’re going to have to be asked. If I might put it from the Democratic side, I’ve worked with Arlen Specter; we’ve agreed on many things; we’ve disagreed on many things.

He has always kept his word and he’s always been forthright with me. And I think he mentioned Ruby Ridge. The two of us did that hearing.

It’s a model of what the Senate should do and has not been doing enough of. I’d like to see us get back to that kind of model bipartisan oversight. The country is better served when it happens.

GWEN IFILL: So, is it fair to say if it were up to you, gentlemen, we would see Alberto Gonzales confirmed?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I think you are going to see some serious questions asked of him. He has a far better chance of being confirmed than some people who have come up here.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Pat Leahy and Sen. Arlen Specter, thank you both very much.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: By the way, I think he will be confirmed.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. I’ll take that. Thank you.