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Meet the new boss? Same as the old boss ...

Adam Lambert
Original Publication Date
Alberto Gonzales

With current speculation rampant about an imminent departure (either by resignation or being asked to step down) of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, it would only be appropriate to provide relevant information about those mentioned as a possible replacement.

Some mentioned as early candidates include current administration officials as well as other long-term former government officials. And even though it may be premature to speculate on the next Attorney General, it is not too soon to compile a "dossier" on people perceived as frontrunners to replace Gonzales as Attorney General.

Snapshots of five of the individuals whose names have been mentioned so far -- 1) Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, (2) SEC Chairman Chris Cox, (3) White House anti-terrorism advisor Francis Fragos Townsend, (4) former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and (5) former Solicitor General Theodore Olsen -- begin below.

1. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff

As far as credentials go, Chertoff has a strong resume. Per his bio on the White House website:

Chertoff formerly served as United States Circuit Judge for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Secretary Chertoff was previously confirmed by the Senate to serve in the Bush Administration as Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice. As Assistant Attorney General, he helped trace the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the al-Qaida network, and worked to increase information sharing within the FBI and with state and local officials.


Prior to that, Chertoff spent more than a decade as a federal prosecutor, including service as U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, and Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. As United States Attorney, Chertoff investigated and prosecuted several significant cases of political corruption, organized crime, and corporate fraud.

Despite the White House's glowing resume, however, there are some issues surrounding Chertoff that can not be ignored. For starters, as head of Homeland Security, he was ultimately responsible for the lack of planning with respect to Hurricane Katrina. Even though, in 2001, FEMA declared a major hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast one of the three most likely catastrophes, Chertoff admitted there was no plan for dealing with this scenario and that it was not anticipated by government planners. Indeed, his overall handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina was roundly criticized.

Chertoff was also heavily criticized for the handling of foreign nationals in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. After the attacks, Chertoff, in his capacity as an assistant attorney general, was responsible for some controversial immigration rules as they related to the "War on Terror" :

As an assistant attorney general in the months after the attacks, Chertoff helped oversee the detention of 762 foreign nationals for immigration violations; none of them was charged with terrorism-related crimes. A subsequent report by the Justice Department's inspector general determined that Justice's "no bond" policy for the detainees -- a tactic whose legality was questioned at the time by immigration officials -- led to lengthy delays in releasing them from prison, where some faced "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse."

2. SEC Chairman Christopher Cox:

Cox is the current SEC Chairman, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on July 29, 2005. Prior to his appointment to the SEC, Cox served in the House of Representatives (chairing numerous committees), and spent two years as Senior Associate Counsel to President Reagan. His academic credentials are impressive as well:

In 1977, Chairman Cox simultaneously received an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and a J.D. from Harvard Law School, where he was an Editor of the Harvard Law Review. He received a B.A. from the University of Southern California in 1973, graduating magna cum laude after pursuing an accelerated three-year course.

Cox also spent eight years (1978 - 1986) with the law firm Latham & Watkins, where he specialized in venture capital and corporate finance.

In September 2006, Cox testified before Congress with respect to the stock option backdating scandal, and discussed how he has worked towards tightening up the laws with respect to executive compensation issues. However, as reported recently by Forbes, he has backtracked:

On the Friday before Christmas, when not a creature was stirring, not even the press, Cox stepped back from his mission of making executive compensation disclosure more complete.

With scarcely a comment period, he decided to let stock options be reported as isolated expenses in the current audit year. Total compensation to the individual executive is once again a number to be painstakingly summed up from various footnotes and other small-print entries.

Cox thus gave a humongous holiday present to the business community, which had lobbied hard to de-emphasize compensation totals because they tend to look, well, bad.

The biggest question about Cox in his position as SEC Chairman is that he is "too business friendly," although that is less of a commentary on his qualifications than it is on his political leanings. However, when it comes to his qualifications for Attorney General, it would appear that, while Cox has a pretty impressive resume, its focus is more on business, venture capital and finance, rather than on issues of justice and law enforcement which one would assume are more typically the realm of Atttorney Generals.

3. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Frances Fragos Townsend:

Townsend spent a number of years as a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice prior to her appointment as Homeland Security Advisor in May 2004. According to her official bio:

Ms. Townsend came to the White House from the U. S. Coast Guard, where she had served as Assistant Commandant for Intelligence. Prior to that, Ms. Townsend spent 13 years at the U. S. Department of Justice in a variety of senior positions, her last assignment as Counsel to the Attorney General for Intelligence Policy. Ms. Townsend began her prosecutorial career in 1985, serving as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, New York.

Townsend also served under Rudy Giuliani in the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan, and worked under Janet Reno in the Clinton administration. While she has a long list of experience that makes her qualified to be Attorney General, her career has had its share of controversy. As noted in the US News article linked above, she came under fire in her capacity as head of the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR) on two related issues -- enforcement of the FISA laws regarding wiretaps (prior to 9/11) and the impact that this may have had on the attacks themselves:

Many FBI agents say Townsend was crucial in obtaining FISA wiretaps, especially during the period of heightened terrorism concerns around the new millennium. But many prosecutors felt that Townsend was less than helpful in making sure the FBI shared wiretap data with lawyers at Main Justice when there was evidence of criminal activity. Townsend believed that the FISA court and its chief judge at the time, Royce Lamberth, would refuse to approve search warrants and wiretaps if they believed too much information sharing was going on and if prosecutors were controlling or directing the intelligence-gathering efforts. One knowledgeable source backs her up and says Townsend "cared very much about following procedures." But others suspect an ulterior motive. Some Justice Department prosecutors felt Townsend wanted to keep the wall up because it kept prosecutors out of national security investigations, leaving more authority in the hands of Townsend and friendly bureau agents.

Whatever the case, there were serious consequences. Both the Government Accountability Office and the 9/11 commission have blamed OIPR in part for the government's intelligence failures before the terrorist attacks. Sources say that OIPR's narrow interpretation of FISA led to misunderstandings and overly cautious behavior by the FBI. As a result, in July and August of 2001, FBI intelligence analysts prohibited their own criminal-case agents from searching for two men on the government's terrorist watch list who they knew had entered the United States. The men later proved to be two of the 19 hijackers. The 9/11 commission said OIPR had become the "sole gatekeeper" of FISA intelligence by arguing that "its position reflected the concerns" of Judge Lamberth. "The office threatened that if it could not regulate the flow of information to criminal prosecutors, it would no longer present the FBI's warrant requests to the FISA court," the report said. "The information flow withered."

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