Despite strong concerns over issues such as torture of foreign prisoners, US senators are expected to confirm White House counsel Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, after hearings beginning Thursday.
If so, it will mark a sharp contrast with the treatment of the last top Hispanic nominee with an inspiring personal story, Miguel Estrada, who withdrew his bid to be appointed to the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2003 after more than two years and a record seven Senate filibusters.
One difference is political context. While few voters can name an appeals court judge, the US attorney general is a high-visibility appointment, and Mr. Gonzales would be the first Hispanic to hold it. Key Hispanic groups that actively opposed the Estrada nomination are backing - or muting objections - to Gonzales.
Yet a key issue in the Gonzales nomination is the role he played in defining or approving a US policy that appeared to condone torture. This week, a dozen retired military officers criticized Gonzales for a series of memos on the treatment of prisoners, including a Jan. 25, 2002, memorandum that argued some of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions are "obsolete" and "quaint" in the context of a "new kind of war" against terror.
It is highly unusual for military officials to take a public position on a civilian appointment. But retired officers say that the impact on the military of memos endorsed by Gonzales is too striking to ignore. "We saw this as posing a huge danger for American service men and women taken into captivity. These briefs under Gonzales could be cited by our enemies to justify torture of our people," says retired Gen. James Cullen, former chief judge of the US Army Court of Criminal Appeals.
He explains in an interview: The Army Field Manual cautions that if readers are in doubt about whether a proposed interrogation technique should be applied, they should ask themselves: If they were taken prisoner, would they want the proposed interrogation measure applied against them? "This very common-sense approach was missed entirely by Mr. Gonzales," says General Cullen.
While Gonzales may have acted at the urging of Vice President Cheney or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "Mr. Gonzales had the responsibility at some point to put the brakes on this ... and he failed to do it," he adds.
At the same time, more than 225 religious leaders were to call on Gonzales Tuesday to denounce the use of torture "under any circumstances" and to "advance standards of international law."
"Notable within our ranks are many Latino and Latina leaders who are more concerned to oppose torture than to applaud appointing a Hispanic to the Cabinet," said George Hunsinger, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, in a statement. "If a person such as this is placed in the position of being the attorney general of the United States, what kind of message does that send to the rest of the world, especially the Arab world?" he added in an interview.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee say there will be tough questioning on this and other issues, but they do not believe they have the votes to derail the nomination. "There will be serious questions raised with regard to torture policy and other advice he's given the president," says Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the new assistant minority leader.
"We want to put them on notice that we're aware and watching," he adds. "If the questions aren't raised, it is easy for supporters of the president later to say, 'You had the opportunity and said nothing about it, so how serious can it be?' "
The son of migrant workers who never finished elementary school, Gonzales sold soda in the stands at Rice University football games and one day announced he would go there. He graduated from Rice and Harvard Law School and practiced law in Houston before joining the Bush gubernatorial staff as general counsel. Later, as Texas secretary of State, Gonzales was Bush's key liaison on border issues with Mexico. He was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court in 1999 and joined the Bush administration as counsel to the president in January 2001.
Supporters include Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, who predicts that the Gonzales nomination will clear the Senate with at least 80 votes. "The nomination of Judge Gonzales combines stellar legal credentials with an inspiring American success story," he wrote in Tuesday's issue of The Washington Times.