Floor Statement from Senator Barack Obama on the Nomination of
Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General
Thursday, February 3, 2005
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thursday, February 3, 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
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
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
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.