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Attorney General Gonzales: Terrorism Remains Top Priority

The new U.S. attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, said Friday that combating terrorism remains the top priority for the Justice Department. He spoke one day after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, despite opposition from most Democrats.

The nation's first attorney general of Hispanic descent received a warm welcome from employees at the Justice Department.

In brief remarks, Attorney General Gonzales left no doubt that he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, John Ashcroft, who made rooting out terrorist threats the top priority.

"Obviously, the president has said that the Number One priority for the department is to protect the country against future acts of terrorism, and we will continue to make that our top priority,” he said. “But we will do so in a way that is always consistent with our values, and consistent with our legal obligations. That will be, of course, the lodestar (guiding principle) that will guide us in our efforts here at the department [of Justice]."

Mr. Gonzales won Senate confirmation after a vote largely along party lines. Majority Republicans noted his inspiring background as a grandson of Mexican immigrants, who worked his way up to become the president's top lawyer in the White House.

Opposition Democrats pressed him about his role in formulating interrogation procedures that they contend led to cases of prisoner abuse and torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Mr. Gonzales said the administration does not tolerate torture and abuse. But Democrats and some civil liberties activists complained that some of his answers during his confirmation hearings were vague.

Anthony Romero is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He says Attorney General Gonzales should remove himself from any torture investigations by the Justice Department.

"We know quite well already that Mr. Gonzales was actively involved in policy discussions about the permissive definition, or the permissive atmosphere, that led to the torture and abuse,” said Mr. Romero. “It raises serious questions about whether or not he himself is capable to oversee any oversight, or any investigation of the torture and abuse."

One of the attorney general's top challenges this year will be persuading Congress to re-authorize the anti-terror law known as the Patriot Act.

The Patriot Act provides law enforcement officials with wider powers to pursue suspected terrorists. But the statute has also drawn criticism from liberals and some conservatives who fear it may infringe on civil liberties.