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posted: 3/15/2010 12:01 AM

Professor Gonzales' critique

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Some civil libertarians have finally figured out that on the question of how Barack Obama's anti-terrorism policies compare to those of George W. Bush, "hope and change" means more of the same.

The American Civil Liberties Union recently placed a full-page ad in The New York Times showing Obama morphing into Bush. What concerns the organization is that Obama is considering reversing Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to try accused architects of the Sept. 11 attacks in criminal court.

Where has the ACLU been? Obama made the decision to continue the Bush-Cheney policies long ago. His administration preserved the CIA policy of rendition where the interrogation of terror suspects is outsourced to foreign countries and defended the use of warrantless wiretaps. A recent task force concluded that nearly 50 of the 188 Guantanamo detainees should be held without trial, in violation of habeas corpus.

Dick Cheney called it.

Shortly before leaving office, he predicted Obama would, in fighting terror, find extremely useful the executive powers the Bush administration claimed. That's just what happened.

I like the ad. I'm fed up with liberals grading Obama on the curve when they handed out failing grades to Bush for the same policies.

I was curious about how all this was playing at Texas Tech University where, every Monday and Wednesday, there is a 90-minute undergraduate course titled "Contemporary Issues in the executive branch." The professor was savaged by the ACLU and other liberals for supposedly running roughshod over the Constitution in the war on terror.

Given the irony of recent events, I asked the professor - former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales - if he was feeling vindicated.

"I don't know," he replied. "I leave it to others to decide whether we've been vindicated."

Gonzales doesn't hold a grudge for being run from office by an unseemly left-wing witch hunt intended to impugn the integrity of a Bush confidant.

"Every wartime president has taken extraordinary steps," he said, "and every wartime president has been challenged in the courts. Some have been criticized. Some vilified. Just like Bush."

Yet, Gonzales also knows well the limits of executive power.

"It's dangerous to take the position that we want the president to do whatever it takes to protect our country," he said. "Even I don't subscribe to that. We want our president, the most powerful person in the world, to be constrained by the Constitution."

Gonzales even musters some sympathy for Obama.

"I think once you get into office," he said, "you quickly realize how hard these issues are."

It's a lesson he learned the hard way.

"One thing that I do emphasize a lot in my class is that mistakes happen at this level because these are the hardest decisions that anyone could possibly confront," he said.

The ACLU thinks the Obama administration is making more than its share of them. But keeping America safe is a tough job. It's a lesson liberals are finally starting to learn.

© 2010, The San Diego Union-Tribune