WASHINGTON – Reporting for his first day as attorney general, Alberto Gonzales (search) told Justice Department employees their priority would remain combatting terrorism "but we will do so in a way that's consistent with our values."
Gonzales was opposed by many Democrats because of his work on administration polices they faulted in the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. Speaking to employees Friday, he alluded to the controversy but emphasized his own heritage as the grandson of Mexican immigrants and other up-from-poverty stories among members of President Bush's Cabinet. He said they had lived the American dream.
"It's historically the case that it falls upon the shoulders of the attorney general to ensure that that dream is available," said Gonzales, who is the nation's first Hispanic attorney general.
His plate is already overflowing with serious tasks: Lobbying Congress for reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act (search), the Justice Department's premiere, and widely criticized, anti-terrorism law; investigating who among his former White House colleagues leaked a CIA employee's name to the media; and coming through on his promise to the Senate to prosecute anyone who tortured or abused foreign detainees.
He reminded Justice employees that President Bush has said their top job is protecting the country from future acts of terrorism. "But we will do so in a way that's consistent with our values, consistent with our legal obligations," said Gonzales, speaking in an ornate atrium near his new office.
Despite nearly unanimous praise for Gonzales' intelligence, his life story and his extensive work with Senate Democrats on judicial nominations and other administration issues, he was confirmed on a 60-36 vote with all of the "no" votes coming from Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont.
He was quickly sworn in as the nation's 80th attorney general by Vice President Dick Cheney in a private ceremony at the White House. President Bush, during his trip Thursday to North Dakota and Montana, called Gonzales to congratulate him after the vote.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said, "I like and respect Judge Gonzales as a person and as an inspiration," but "I am unsure Judge Gonzales is the right man for this crucial job."
Many said they couldn't look past his participation in administration policies they said had led to abuse of prisoners that occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba. They also complained he refused to answer their questions on how those policies were created inside the White House.
"Mr. Gonzales was at the heart of the Bush administration's notorious decision to authorize our forces to commit flagrant acts of torture in the interrogation of detainees," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
The ACLU already is calling for Gonzales to remove himself from any torture investigations by the Justice Department, and Schumer has suggested he not participate in his department's investigation into who inside the administration leaked a CIA employee's name.
His friendship with Bush does cause some concern, critics said. "Gonzales pledged to be the attorney general of all Americans, and not be in the president's pocket," said ACLU lawyer Christopher Anders.
Republicans say Gonzales will do an excellent job as attorney general, praising him for how he worked his way up to being Bush's top lawyer in the White House.
"His life story is inspiring, and another shining example of how the American dream can be reality for all who are willing to work for it," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
At first, many Democrats had joined Republicans in praising the former state judge who traveled with Bush to Washington after the president's 2000 victory. But some Democrats turned against him after he sidestepped questions during his confirmation hearing on what advice he gave Bush and other administration officials on the interrogation methods that could be used on suspected terrorists or witnesses.
Pressed on the issue, Gonzales defended language in which he labeled as "quaint" some of the Geneva Conventions' human rights protections for prisoners of war and said they did not extend to Al Qaeda and other suspected terrorists.
But he also declared, "Torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration."
Republicans insinuated that Democrats wanted a big vote against Gonzales to keep Bush from making him the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee if a position comes open.