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Job opening for attorney general with credibility

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: "Short list" includes Olson, Terwilliger and Silberman, Novak reports
  • Ex-Justice official: Persuasive nominee could win wide support
  • Right choice could quickly resolve probes, says Gonzales critic
  • White House counsel reaches out to Democrat for suggestions
  • Next Article in Politics »
By Thom Patterson
CNN
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(CNN) -- The next attorney general must carry enough stature to push White House anti-terrorism policies, combined with the charm and credibility to win over congressional Democrats, a former Justice Department official said.

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Alberto Gonzales did not take reporters' questions Monday after announcing his resignation.

Facing congressional investigations into a secret wiretapping program and the firing of eight prosecutors, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation Monday after months of bipartisan calls for him to step down.

"The Justice Department has been essentially paralyzed for more than a year," CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said. "If this administration wants to accomplish anything before President Bush's term ends in 17 months, they need a credible attorney general."

In nominating Gonzales' successor, which hinges on Senate approval, the White House could go one of two ways: put forth a provocateur or a conciliator, Toobin said. "Former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson or Securities and Exchange Commission chief Christopher Cox might be candidates that would be considered conciliators." Video Watch pundits ponder who will be the next attorney general »

Cox is a 17-year veteran GOP congressman from California who also served President Reagan as senior associate counsel.

Thompson, who holds a general counsel position at PepsiCo, also served as a former deputy attorney general. "He's widely liked and very popular within the Justice Department," said Newsweek investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff. "Ideally, he would be a non-divisive choice."

Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Noel Francisco agreed that Thompson -- who would be the first African-American attorney general -- might be embraced by both Republicans and Democrats.

"There are some people of stature who would do a better job of responding credibly to Democrats' investigations," Francisco said. "That doesn't mean compromising the administration's position -- or taking any different position [from what] Attorney General Gonzales took or that the White House is currently taking. But rather somebody who has the stature and credibility to make arguments in a way that will continue to be persuasive to the American public -- if not persuasive to Democrats in Congress."

The White House isn't speaking publicly about who it's considering to next lead the Justice Department. But White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten's "short list" of possible nominees, according to columnist Robert Novak, includes no one like Gonzales, a close friend of Bush from his days in Texas politics.

Citing administration sources, Novak reports that the list includes former Solicitor General Ted Olson, former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger and Senior U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Laurence H. Silberman.

Silberman, who served as deputy attorney general in 1974 and 1975, also possesses the necessary stature to take on the task, said Francisco, who served as associate counsel to Bush from 2001 to 2003 and as deputy assistant attorney general from 2003 to 2005. See backgrounds of other possible nominees »

Bush appointed Silberman as co-chairman of the commission investigating pre-war intelligence on Iraq. He also served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, a panel that oversees sensitive law enforcement surveillance by the federal government.

Francisco said a more independent nominee might make an ideal choice to succeed Gonzales. Someone "who shares the president's priorities and interests, but at the same time is perceived by Congress as somebody who can stand strong and independently of the president and give his honest and unvarnished advice."

Bush should "pick the best person, not his best friend," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democratic judiciary committee member who said she's looking for a nominee who will put the rule of law first. Former Missouri Sen. John Danforth and ex-Deputy Attorney General James Comey might fit that bill, Feinstein told the Orange County Register.

Throughout Gonzales' time as attorney general, his positions on issues such as U.S. interrogation techniques and the wiretapping of conversations between Americans and suspected terrorists overseas were widely criticized.

In the U.S. attorney firings investigation, the Senate Judiciary Committee explored the accusation that the attorneys were fired for political reasons. During his many appearances before the committee, Gonzales seemed to repeatedly contradict himself, other members of his department or Justice Department documents.

He was also at the center of a dispute over the Bush-authorized no-warrant eavesdropping program and his contention that there was no serious dispute among top administration officials over it.

Gonzales later sent a letter to Senate leaders acknowledging he "may have created confusion" in his testimony. See timeline of Gonzales' Bush administration career »

One of Gonzales' chief Democratic critics on the committee, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, told CNN that the right nominee would allow lawmakers to put the Justice Department investigations behind them "quickly with dispatch."

"If the new attorney general is one who is not prone to stonewalling and just not giving information, I think we can quickly figure out what happened with the U.S. attorneys, with the wiretapping, see what went wrong, fix it and move forward," Schumer said.

Schumer said he suggested names to White House Counsel Fred Fielding, but wouldn't reveal his choices.

When asked how long it might take for Justice to function normally, longtime GOP panel member Sen. Arlen Specter said he was confident that Solicitor General Paul Clement would begin repairing the damage as soon as he takes over as acting attorney general on September 17.

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"Now it's a matter to have new orders issued which will establish professional footing for the Department of Justice," Specter said. "I think it would be in order to have some guidelines on tenure of U.S. attorneys, for example."

The White House has said it would be a matter of weeks before it would send the name of its attorney general nominee to the Capitol for approval. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About U.S. SenateAlberto GonzalesGeorge W. Bush

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