Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says President Bush supports English as the country's "national language," but stops short of proclaiming it the exclusive or official language of the United States.
"This is really a question of semantics: Of course, English is the common, unifying language of our great country," Gonzales said in his first appearance on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." "The President has never been supportive of English only, or English as our official language. But certainly we support the fact that English is the national language of our country."
The nation's highest-ranking Hispanic official recently told the Associated Press, "I don't see the need to have legislation or a law that says English is going to be the national language."
Yet, the Senate last week approved legislation that does just that. Newly installed White House Press Secretary Tony Snow indicated the president supported the Senate action, signaling some confusion over the White House's position on the issue.
"English represents a path to opportunity," said Gonzales, whose family immigrated to the United States. "You need to be able to communicate in English."
Gonzales dismissed reports that the White House supports any action to forbid multilingual ballots, asserting the president supports non-English ballots "in certain communities" as currently permitted in the Voting Rights Act.
In recent remarks in Las Vegas, Nev., Gonzales called a border wall "contrary to our traditions" and said the government could protect the country against terrorists potentially entering the country via Mexico "without building a wall."
But, when pressed by ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos, Gonzales seemed to reverse course.
"The objective here is to have a smart border strategy," he said. "And part of that should include, in my judgment, a wall along certain portions of the border, a wall along certain portions of the border."
The Senate has passed an amendment to its version of the immigration bill that calls for a 370-miles fence or wall along the Mexican border. Gonzales, despite earlier indications to the contrary, told ABC News, "We currently have it in place; it makes sense in certain areas, and [in] other areas, it doesn't make sense, quite frankly."
Gonzales cited areas along the southern border with "steep cliffs" as a portion that may not require fencing or a wall.
"Depending on the geography, depending on the use of technology, depending on the use of border patrol agents, you may not need … a border, in my judgment," he said. "All along the southern border -- but in certain places, it does make sense."
The nation's leading law enforcement agent demurred on the question of whether or not illegal immigrants who pay into the Social Security program should be allowed to collect benefits.
"I'd prefer to wait to see what comes out of the Senate," Gonzales said. But he added, "People should not benefit from that kind of illegal activity."
Gonzales also defended the NSA wiretapping program, insisting the Justice Department has not been reviewing the "content" in journalists' phone records without a court order. The attorney general reiterated that the rights of a free press cannot trump national security but added, "I understand very much the role the press plays in our society."
When asked whether journalists should be prosecuted for publishing classified material, Gonzales answered, "It depends on the circumstances. … We have an obligation to make sure the people are protected."
Regarding recent reports that the Justice Department has not been able to conduct a thorough review of the NSA surveillance program as directed by Congress, Gonzales said it would be "inappropriate" for him to comment, but he repeatedly defended the many decisions about what materials investigators are cleared to view.
George Stephanopoulos's entire interview with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales can be viewed at "This Week's" Web page at www.abcnews.com.