Attorney General Alberto Gonzales balances tough action with an amiable management style.
In his first year in office, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has provoked controversy by advocating expansive views of presidential power in the war on terror, on issues such as warrantless wiretapping and the Patriot Act. While he is a hawk on substance, Gonzales is a dove in style. He is lauded by both supporters and critics as a good listener, and has gained a reputation at the Justice Department as an inclusive manager. In an interview with National Journal's Brian Friel, Gonzales discussed his views on leadership in the war on terror and his management style.
On leaders he admires: I always admire very much presidents and leaders during wartime, because it is the experience I am going through now. When I look and see what people like Lincoln and Roosevelt and Churchill have done, when there's so much at stake, and you can see their resolve, their absolute determination and their commitment to preserve the country, that's something I very much admire. Oftentimes you're talking about taking actions that are controversial. They're tough, so people don't agree with it, which is exactly what is going on now. We're having to make some very tough decisions. Some of them are controversial, and that's what you have to do. You do what you think is the right thing to do, what you think the law allows you to do, and you know, history will be the judge as to whether or not all the decisions made were appropriate, but what I can tell you is we're focused on preserving our country. I worry about this threat, I worry for my kids. I've got a 13-year-old and 10-year-old at home. Our country will never be the same again. It's a different world we live in. I feel a special obligation to do what I can to minimize the threat against the United States.
On being a wartime attorney general: As attorney general, you have a responsibility to ensure that even under the most remarkable circumstances that the Constitution be followed. As attorney general, you've got to stand there and say, yes, you can do this; no, this is not allowed under the Constitution. But you also have to understand that circumstances sometimes allow you to take certain kinds of actions that may not be permitted in normal circumstances.
On using interagency task forces to tackle major issues such as human trafficking and gang violence: I do that for two reasons. One, there are limits on our budgets and on our resources, and so we like to pull resources together. We want to act smartly and make sure there's not duplication of effort and duplication of resources with those resources of state and local officials. . . . Secondly, it's all part of integrating everyone into a common effort, whether it's terrorism, whether it's gangs, whether it's drugs. State, local officials-as well as federal officials-we care very much about addressing these issues to make our communities safer. It's all part of the effort of buying in. Everyone has a stake. Everyone commits, not just in words but also in terms of resources and manpower and providing information or intelligence or communications. That's the reason why that kind of effort is the most productive. When you're dealing with certain kinds of issues, particularly the war on terror, a new kind of enemy and a new kind of war, it's absolutely essential, critical, that we have that kind of coordination, that kind of integration between federal, state and local officials, as well as our counterparts overseas.
On leading the Justice Department: I tried very hard to reach out to people, to go by and visit various offices, not just in the main Justice building but also in other offices. . . . It's important for people to hear directly from me about what my priorities are, to let them know how important they are to me, that I can't be successful without their help. . . . I like to deal with people, interact one-on-one with people. I've always been that way.
On the importance of listening: People like to feel that they're appreciated for the work they do. Most of the work, the overwhelming substance of the work of the department is not done by political people like myself-political appointees-it's done by career professionals who have been there year in and year out, through various administrations, both Democratic and Republican. And they're there to do a job. They're professionals. They're there to provide service to the American people, to ensure that justice is done. It's good to go around to the career folks and let them know, 'Hey I appreciate you. I don't care whether or not you supported the presi-dent. What I care about is that you do your job the way you've been doing it in the past. I will support you. I expect you to do your job.' That's an important message to convey to the career folks.
On one-on-one communication versus big groups: It's always easier to have a very candid discussion. Everyone then has an opportunity to provide their views to me. Sometimes in big groups it's tougher. Oftentimes when I'm talking in big groups, I'm doing all the talking, I'm not doing the listening, so I'm not learning as much as I would normally in a smaller group, where people have the opportunity to convey to me what their concerns are. But on the other hand, it's important as the attorney general to also convey a message, so I've got to take advantage of events . . . to convey to groups in a group setting what my expectations are, and what my vision is for the future of the department.
On the importance of visiting with rank-and-file employees: Quite honestly, most of the people were just grateful to see the attorney general. They were delighted that I would take the time to come by and see them and say hello and ask how they're doing. I would go in their offices and shake their hands, look at the pictures, ask about their families, so it was actually much more personal as opposed to getting into substantive discussions.
On what stands out from his first year as attorney general: I went to Iraq over the Fourth of July holiday. That was a remarkable journey for me. I wanted to do that for two reasons. One, we have several DoJ people in Iraq helping provide training of investigators, police officers and judges. We helped in drafting the constitution. We're helping in standing up the Iraqi criminal court. So we've got a very important and very significant presence in Iraq, and I wanted to go and say thank you face to face with those folks. . . . I had an opportunity to visit with troops, also visit with wounded soldiers in the hospital. Probably that trip stands out the most, because those are some real heroes over in Iraq, standing up democracy and promoting the rule of law.