The National Security Agency's vast intelligence gathering that started after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was crucial to building the safety of America, the former U.S. attorney general said here Monday.
Alberto Gonzales defended the goals of the data gathering.
"Not only could we not connect the dots, we couldn't collect the dots," Gonzales told a crowd of 70 people, mostly lawyers, at the annual meeting of the Chattanooga Federal Bar Association at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
However, recent debates on what the NSA and other government agencies are doing are valid and something Congress may soon address in legislation, he added.
Gonzales touched on national security, partisan gridlock, immigration, and his nickname during his 45-minute talk.
Gonzales served as general counsel to Bush before becoming the 80th U.S. attorney general in 2005. He served in that position until September 2007. He is counsel to the Nashville law firm of Waller, Lansden, Dortch and Davis. He also holds a law chair at Belmont University in Nashville, where he teaches classes.
Local attorney Randy Wilson asked Gonzales about Washington gridlock and the public perception of Congress as dysfunctional.
Leadership failures occur in both the White House and Congress, he said. And Gonzales provided his own idea as to why.
"I don't believe Republican leaders respect the president," he said. "Who's fault is that? I'm not saying it's the president's fault. I hope it does change, because we have three more years."
On immigration, Gonzales noted that both Bush and President Barack Obama have tried to lead on immigration reform but lack of cooperation between parties in Congress has led nowhere.
"I know it's hard, but this is why (Congress) is elected to serve," Gonzales said.
An audience member asked the nation's former top prosecutor a two-part question, the first a legal one about the expansion of executive power under increased regulatory authority by government agencies. A more personal question followed.
"Did you have a nickname?"
"Fredo," was what President George W. Bush called him while he worked for him, both in Texas when the president was as governor and later at the White House, he responded.
As for an explanation?
"My name is Alberto, maybe he was confused and thought my name was Alfredo," Gonzales said. "I don't know, I never asked."
Contact staff writer Todd South at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.