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In New Memoir, Alberto Gonzales Defends 'War On Terror' Tactics

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We start today speaking with someone who was at the center of some of the most contentious and emotional debates of recent years over how far to go in fighting the so-called war on terror. We're talking about Alberto Gonzales. Born in San Antonio, Texas, he grew up in a family of eight children in a home with no running water to parents who didn't graduate from elementary school.

Yet Gonzales grew up to become a member of the Texas Supreme Court. He went on to serve as White House Counsel and then attorney general in the administration of his friend, President George W. Bush. He was the first Hispanic-American to hold either of those posts. Yet his White House career ended with his resignation in 2007 amid sharp criticism from members of both political parties about his leadership of the Justice Department.

Gonzales writes about all of these things in a newly published memoir titled "True Faith And Allegiance." He's with us now from Nashville, where he serves as dean and Doyle Rogers Distinguished Professor of law at Belmont University College of Law. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

ALBERTO GONZALES: It's good to be back, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: My first question to you is why this memoir and why now?

GONZALES: The real reason I wrote this - there's so much out there, particularly about me. Some of it true, some of it not true. And I wanted my boys to know the reasons why I served, the things that motivated me, what I observed, what I actually did, was responsible for. And I wanted them to know the story of their dad's service.

MARTIN: You know, you open the book - and I have to say it's interesting to read - with the question of where were you on 9/11? You know, even now, it has this kind of heart-pounding feel. The heart of the book speaks to the administration's tactics in response to 9/11. And the through line is that this was the price of keeping Americans safe from terrorism attacks. Now, so much time has passed. Is the purpose of this book to say the strategies that your administration employed are the correct ones? Or is it to provide context for the decisions made then, even if they weren't all 100 percent correct, so that people understand them better?

GONZALES: People will, you know, make their own judgment. I merely wanted to put out additional facts. And I think one thing you can say is that the decisions we made did keep America safe. Certainly we did - we've never had another 9/11-style attack. I think the reason for that is because of the policies that we put in place, the structure, the framework we put in place following the attacks of 9/11.

MARTIN: You played a big role in the administration's move to allow the CIA to use, quote, "enhanced interrogation techniques" on detainees thought to have information on Osama bin Laden's activities. And you also say that these pale against what ISIS has been doing overseas. I mean, you say that in a day when ISIS is decapitating Christians with swords, the CIA's efforts to extract vital information regarding future al-Qaida plans might seem embarrassingly benign to many people. Many people disagree that these tactics are effective. They certainly don't think that they're benign. And do you really want to use ISIS' tactics as the moral standard by which you judge America's actions?

GONZALES: Absolutely not. And - but let me just say this. I stopped long ago trying to persuade people as to whether or not they believe that what the United States government did was or was not in violation of the anti-torture statute. Certainly waterboarding is unlawful today. But during the early years of the war on terror, there was guidance given by the Department of Justice that if administered in a certain way to a certain group of individuals that it would not violate the anti-torture statute.

MARTIN: Now that you're no longer in the Department of Justice, can I ask you whether you still think it's right?

GONZALES: Well, here's the difficulty, Michel. We're looking at this in the mindset of 2016. If we were looking at this with - in the mindset of 2003, for example, or 2002 even, when we've just had the deaths of 3,000 American citizens, great concern about additional attacks against the United States - our mindset is different. And so it's very - I think it's somewhat unfair to say, do you think it was right because in answering that question, we think about it in terms of 2016 and not how we felt about the world, how we felt about threats against this country in 2002, in 2003.

MARTIN: Can we talk a little bit about some contemporary issues apart from your own kind of biography? We do mention that your parents were born in this country. Your grandparents...

GONZALES: That's correct.

MARTIN: ...Three of the four...

GONZALES: Yes, that's correct.

MARTIN: ...Of your grandparents were born in Mexico. And you say in the book that, you know, they may or may not have gotten here, you know, legally. With that heritage, I have to ask you about the Republican nominee's language around immigration. Just this week, a number of high-profile Texas supporters, former supporters of Latino heritage, have turned away from Donald Trump, saying that they've just had enough. What about you? Do you support the Republican nominee?

GONZALES: Well, listen, I think that - I'm on record in terms of how I feel about immigration reform irrespective of who the candidate is. You know, I believe in comprehensive immigration reform, tougher workplace enforcement. I do believe we need more border security. As to whether or not, you know, I believe in all the positions of the Republican nominee, you're right. It's a very interesting presidential election cycle. And I will promise you this - if you want me back to talk about current events, I'd be happy to do that.

MARTIN: So I'd wanted to ask you specifically about some of Donald Trump's statements about profiling Muslim-Americans. But we talked about that. We talked about the expansion of government surveillance that occurred during the Bush administration. It's a cost-benefit analysis, as you say in the book. And I'd like to ask you about the Republican nominee's suggestion of profiling Muslim-Americans.

GONZALES: With respect to profiling, it's not really profiling if, in fact, there is legitimate law enforcement concern, a specific reason to target a certain group for a law enforcement purpose. Then it's not necessarily profiling. But to simply profile an entire group just because they're an - they are an entire group without any kind of tie to potential criminal activity I think is problematic. But go beyond that - quite frankly, Michel, you know - again, if you invite me back, I'm happy to get into more detail.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, how do you like your new life? Do you feel you were treated fairly after you left the White House?

GONZALES: Well, I do address that directly in the book that no, I don't feel like - that I was treated fairly. But I also am quick to point out that very few people who go to Washington and achieve positions of power feel that they were treated fairly. And if you - if that's what you're looking for, then you really don't need to go - be going to Washington and assume these positions of power. I'm in a good place in my life both personally with my family and with my faith.

MARTIN: That's Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general of the United States. His latest book is "True Faith And Allegiance: A Story Of Service And Sacrifice In War And Peace." We reached him in Nashville, where he's dean of the school of law at Belmont University College of Law. Judge Gonzales, thank you so much for joining us once again.

GONZALES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.