Bush selects evangelical for attorney general post

Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel who advised that the Geneva Conventions and international anti-torture treaties did not apply to terrorist suspects held by the US, was yesterday selected by President George Bush as his new attorney general.

Officials said that if confirmed by the Senate, Mr Gonzales would succeed John Ashcroft, whose resignation from the post was announced on Tuesday. Mr Gonzales, 49, would be the first Hispanic to hold the position.

Mr Gonzales was among several possible replacements widely discussed before the election when it was thought Mr Ashcroft would not serve in a second term. Mr Ashcroft actually proffered his resignation to the President in a five-page handwritten letter on election night but Mr Bush waited until after the weekend to accept it and decide upon a replacement.

If the right-wing, evangelical Mr Ashcroft was among the most polarising members of the Bush cabinet, Mr Gonzales is not without considerable controversy. He was at the centre of the effort to publicly defend the administration's policy of holding prisoners captured in the so-called "war on terror" without access to lawyers or the courts, a stance opposed by the Supreme Court. He also wrote a memo in February 2002 in which the Bush administration claimed the right to ignore international treaties prohibiting torture of prisoners. Campaigners said that memo led directly to the sort of abuses that were uncovered at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and which have been alleged at Guantanamo Bay.

But the controversy surrounding Mr Gonzales dates back further, to the time when he worked as general counsel to Mr Bush when he was governor of Texas. An article last year in Atlantic Monthly examined Mr Gonzales's role in the preparation of memos to Mr Bush on 57 death penalty cases in which the governor was required to consider the granting of clemency.

The magazine's investigation found Mr Gonzales "repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence". The magazine said Mr Gonzales appeared to exclude factors such as "mental illness or incompetence, childhood physical or sexual abuse, remorse, rehabilitation or racial discrimination in jury selection".

Mr Bush allowed the executions to proceed in all but one of the 57 cases, including that of Terry Washington, a 33-year-old mentally retarded man with the communications skills of a seven-year-old.

Mr Gonzales had also been considered a possible candidate for the Supreme Court if an opening should emerge. In recent weeks, his name had been mentioned increasingly, with the announcement that Chief Justice William Rehnquist was suffering from thyroid cancer.

Reports suggested that in the end it was decided, somewhat ironically, that Mr Gonzales was not sufficiently conservative on certain basic issues to please right-wing Republicans looking for a zealot on the bench.

The replacement of Mr Ashcroft was first of what will likely be several reshuffles in the cabinet over the coming days and weeks. Mr Bush is already looking for a replacement for Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, who announced his resignation on Tuesday.

Yesterday Mr Bush was due to meet the Secretary of State Colin Powell, about whose future there has been intense speculation. It was generally considered Mr Powell would not serve in a second term but there has been a flurry of reports suggesting he might.

Senator John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential candidate, yesterday offered a statement in which he called Mr Ashcroft "one of the most divisive faces in this administration". He said: "With the end of the era of John Ashcroft, the President now has an opportunity to heal those divisions and make good on his promise of renewed bipartisan co-operation."

But, in an early sign of the increased control held by Republicans, the Energy Secretary, Spencer Abrams, said he believed the new Congress would vote next year to permit drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife reserve (ANWR).

Republican Senator Pete Domenicic, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said: "With oil at $50 a barrel, and likely to stay there for months, the market mandates congressional action. We can develop ANWR without harming the environment or the wildlife. Now is the time to do that."

THE CV

Born: 4 August 1955, San Antonio, Texas. Raised in Houston with seven brothers and sisters

Education: Graduated from Rice University, Houston, and from Harvard Law School

Marital status: Married with three children

1973-75 Served in the US Air Force

1982-95 Joined the Houston law firm, Vinson & Elkins

1992 Assistant legal counsel, Houston Host Committee, Republican National Convention

1995-97 General counsel to Governor George Bush

1997-99 Secretary of State, State of Texas

1999-2000 Justice, The Supreme Court of Texas

2000-04 White House counsel for George Bush

2004 Nominated as US Attorney General

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