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Gonzales lauds 'tremendous job' by his Justice Department

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  • Bush's attorney general talks to CNN about his record at Justice
  • Alberto Gonzales says "people are focused on the little negatives"
  • Gonzales acknowledges Justice hiring decisions had political bent
  • He refuses to say if he thinks waterboarding is torture
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(CNN) -- Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spoke to CNN's Campbell Brown on Tuesday about his record at the Justice Department, including the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, allegedly for political reasons. Here are excerpts of the interview:

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says the new administration will make mistakes, too.

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says the new administration will make mistakes, too.

Alberto Gonzales: Well, I hope history will reflect the fact that during my tenure both at the White House and at the Department of Justice we did a tremendous job in protecting our country and also as attorney general we focused on protecting our kids from sexual predators, we focused on making our neighborhoods safe from guns and drugs. The level of prosecutions with respect to public corruption far exceeded what the previous administration did and so many people are focused on the little negatives that occurred.

Campbell Brown: But ...

Gonzales: As soon as mistakes were made. But a lot was accomplished.

Brown: These were not little negatives. And we can go through the list, but let's talk about -- let's start by talking about how politicized the Justice Department became. An inspector general found that. There is nothing partisan about that. Your office fired nine U.S. attorneys for political reasons. There has been no disagreement about that. I mean, how could you let that happen?

Gonzales: Campbell, Campbell, Campbell. I disagree with that. You said that nine U.S. attorneys were fired for partisan political reasons. That's not what the report said. Quite the opposite. The report clearly found that there were performance related reasons for the removal of most of these U.S. attorneys and with respect to the remainder, they didn't have enough information to draw definite conclusions. Now I clearly will acknowledge that there were political considerations taken with respect to the hiring decisions made by some of the staff within the Department of Justice. It's something that I condemn and it shouldn't have happened.

Brown: Well, the inspector general's report that was issued, of course, during the Bush administration, I mean, found that you had been, quote, "remarkably unengaged" in the process and you quote, "abdicated your responsibility to safeguard the integrity and independence of the Justice Department."

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Gonzales: Well, again, I take issue with some of the things that were in that report. I've already testified, as I've indicated before and spoken to the American public about wishing that I had done things differently with respect to the removal of the U.S. attorneys. But I think you need to look at the overall record of the department during my tenure and the good things that we accomplished

Brown: OK. I've got to ask you about something else. I mean, in addition to what happened with the firing of those people, you have been vilified for something else and that was for the visit that you and Andy Card [then chief of staff for President Bush] paid to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft when he was in the hospital. This is when you were White House counsel. You went to demand that Ashcroft expand the government's ability to spy on Americans without a warrant.

And this man is lying in a hospital bed, he had just had surgery, his aide had to come in to intervene to stop you and Andy Card from doing this. Many just saw this as being beyond the bounds of decency. Honestly, what were you thinking when you did that?

Gonzales: Campbell, you described this visit as a visit to go demand something from General Ashcroft. Andy Card and I were sent on behalf of the president of the United States to talk to General Ashcroft. It was an announced visit. We were sent there on behalf of the president to inform the attorney general of a very important meeting that we had just had at the White House with congressional leadership about probably the most important intelligence collection program for the United States government.

Andy and I never had any intention of taking advantage of a sick man. We were there, sent on behalf of the president, to deliver information that everyone believed was vital to the national security interests of our country.

Brown: Let me move on and ask you about waterboarding, which was a subject that got an enormous amount of attention when you were attorney general. Everybody from [Arizona Republican Sen.] John McCain, who was tortured, to Mike McConnell, President Bush's intelligence chief, have said that waterboarding is in fact torture.

If you look at public opinion polls, the public believes it is by a wide margin. But you've never been able to say or you've never been willing to say whether it is or not. Why not? Why can't you answer that question?

Gonzales: I'll answer that question by saying that judgments about legal issues often produce disagreements. Clearly there is no disagreement about the principle of not torturing. That is something that President Bush announced that his administration would follow that principle, which we tried to do. The issue of coercive interrogation to gather information from dangerous crim-- dangerous terrorists to help protect our country is one that we clearly wrestled with.

It is an issue that this administration is going to wrestle with. I'll conclude by simply saying that I wish the best of luck to this administration in gathering information to protect our country, not in the abstract, but in the real world of fighting a global war on terror.

Brown: Well, what have you learned? I mean, take a step back and put this in perspective for me. A bigger picture here. What regrets do you have? What did you learn from this experience?

Gonzales: Well, what I learned is that at this level you're going to make mistakes. And if you believe that Eric Holder isn't going to make a mistake or that the next president is not going to make a mistake, then just sadly mistaken about the kinds of issues that we have to deal with every day. Issue after issue after issue.

You cannot be paralyzed by criticism. You cannot be paralyzed by the notion that you're going to make a mistake.

You have to do the very best you can in making judgments. If you make a mistake, you identify those mistakes. You correct them if you can.

I've also learned that, quite frankly, people are simply going to criticize you and that's just part of being in these kinds of positions and I accept that. I think some of the criticism is unfair and unwarranted, but nonetheless that comes with being the attorney general.

Brown: You've had trouble finding a job since you left public office. Most people would leave public service with many opportunities. Why not you?

Gonzales: With respect to employment, listen, I can understand in a very tough economy, some employers are going to be very hesitant about bringing someone like me on when you have ongoing investigation. That is why I am working as hard as I can with my legal team to try to get these investigations completed as quickly as possible, because I am anxious to move on to the next phase of my life. I feel like I still have a lot to contribute to our community and to our country and I want to do so.

Brown: Judge Gonzales, we appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. Thank you very much.

Gonzales: Thank you, Campbell.

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