While politicians of both parties have repeatedly denounced Alberto Gonzales for public mendacity and abuse of office, a few of them finally have stepped up to do what must be done. On July 31, Representative Jay Inslee (D-WA) and, as of this writing, at least five colleagues—four of them former prosecutors—filed a resolution directing the House Judiciary Committee to open an impeachment investigation of the attorney general.
The logic of Mr. Inslee’s initiative is inescapable to anyone who has been listening to the Congressional complaints about Mr. Gonzales. If legislators from both branches and both parties believe that the attorney general has repeatedly deceived Congress and the public about matters of importance, if they believe that he has committed those deceptions under oath in the Capitol and if they believe that the president will do nothing to remedy these wrongs, then impeachment can be their only serious response.
So far, the Democratic Congressional leadership—and the Republicans who likewise suspect the attorney general of grave offenses—have carefully sidestepped this obligation. Instead they urge the appointment of a “special counsel” to probe the accusations of perjury against him.
For anyone who remembers the awful excesses of the Clinton impeachment and the punishment inflicted on the Republicans in the next election for their pernicious zealotry, such caution is understandable. But there is no way to shift the burden of confronting the attorney general’s abuses onto the White House. George W. Bush will take no action against his old pal and former personal lawyer—the factotum he calls “Fredo”—who retains his full confidence (and who knows far too much about this president and this administration to be discarded anyway).
Despite Democratic reluctance, the prospect of a Gonzales impeachment has loomed for months and has only become more urgent with every prevarication he utters—and every new revelation of the partisan misuse of the Justice Department under his command. It is the culmination of a process that began with his confirmation hearings in January 2005, when he baldly lied to Senator Russ Feingold.
The Wisconsin Democrat had asked whether Mr. Gonzales, the former White House counsel, agreed with a legal memorandum suggesting that the president can authorize unlawful acts by his subordinates (such as torture). “Does the president, in your opinion, have the authority, acting as commander in chief, to authorize warrantless searches of Americans’ homes and wiretaps of their conversations in violation of the criminal and foreign intelligence statutes of this country?”
Hoping to evade this prescient question, Mr. Gonzales blandly declined to answer a “hypothetical.” But when pressed he agreed that “the president is not above the law … It is not the policy of this president to authorize actions that would be in contravention of our criminal statutes.” Then Senator Feingold asked whether, as attorney general, Mr. Gonzales would “commit to notify Congress if the president makes this type of decision, and not wait two years until a memo is leaked about it.”
“I will advise the Congress as soon as I reasonably can, yes sir,” he replied obsequiously, knowing that the White House had authorized wiretaps without warrants for three years by then. Eleven months later, that fact was disclosed on the front page of The New York Times, giving ample proof that Mr. Gonzales had lied to the Senate.
That may not have been the first time he did so, and surely was not the last. Since that defining moment, his history of “misstatements and omissions,” as The Washington Post put it so delicately, have driven his credibility so low that he cannot appear on Capitol Hill without being called a liar to his face. The White House would like to pretend that this Congressional fury is mere party politics, but honest Republicans, too, have been rankled by the Gonzo spectacle.
Senate Republicans may or may not share Democratic suspicions over the strange firings of several United States attorneys by the Bush administration. They may or may not worry that the attorney general has turned the Justice Department into an extension of the White House political machine. But they all had to listen to Mr. Gonzales last spring when he claimed that he could not remember any of the details of those firings. According to The Washington Post, his recollection failed more than 60 times at a single hearing in April, when he said that he could not even recall “a final, high-level meeting in his office at which the dismissal plan was formally approved.”
Appointing a special counsel to evaluate the conduct of Mr. Gonzales—a process that might require years to complete—is an unacceptable substitute for real constitutional oversight. Legislators of either party who are convinced that the attorney general has lied to them and covered up wrongdoing should vote for an impeachment inquiry—and let him decide whether he wants to face that historical process, or resign.