ABC News’ Jason Ryan Reports: Gray overcast skies covered Washington Friday as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said farewell to Justice Department employees at a ceremony held in the Department’s Great Hall. The ceremony highlighted his years in public service both as White House counsel and during his 32 month term as attorney general.
In a prayer invocation, Reverend Kathleene Card, wife of former White House chief of staff Andrew Card, asked for a blessing as Gonzales "transitioned from public life into private life."
There was nary a mention of the controversy that ultimately cost him his job during the ceremony but Acting Deputy Attorney General Craig Morford recalled an April meeting in Chicago where Gonzales met with a number of U.S. Attorneys.
Morford described the meeting as "Frank and candid – perhaps too frank and candid," but Gonzales listened to their concerns and did not hold it against them, his Deputy explained.
Gonzales replaced former Senator John Ashcroft, R-Mo., as attorney general on February 3, 2005, after a 60-36 Senate confirmation vote.
Gonzales endured months of criticism for the firing of at least nine U.S. attorneys last year and members of Congress accused him of providing misleading testimony on the government’s terrorist surveillance program. Democrats alleged that Gonzales had repeatedly lied to Congress under oath.
In his 7-minute address to his family, friends and employees, Gonzales thanked the Department for their efforts in confronting terrorism and fighting drugs and crimes against children.
"If there is an agreement, a consensus, about anything, it is that children are what are most dear to us and we must do everything that we can to protect them from being hurt," said the outgoing Attorney General.
Throughout Gonzales’ tenure, the White House stood behind its top law official, who has had a long history with President Bush.
Gonzales joined then-Governor George Bush’s staff in 1994 as general counsel. He became Texas secretary of state in 1997, a position he held until Bush appointed him to the state’s Supreme Court in 1999. Gonzales left Texas’ high court to take a position as White House counsel at the beginning of Bush’s first presidential term in January 2001.
Gonzales became emotional when he thanked his friend, the president, saying, "He has on numerous occasions afforded me the great privilege of public service in Texas, at the White House, and the Department of Justice as the attorney general. I am profoundly grateful to him. And it has been a great honor to serve under his leadership."
At the departure ceremony Michael Sullivan, Acting ATF Director and US Attorney from Massachusetts, praised Gonzales calm demeanor, despite the political controversy in Washington, "He is a calm eye in the center of a storm."
Despite the recent months of controversy many of the top officials at the Department spoke highly of Gonzales dedication in battling online child pornography through the Department’s initiative Project Safe Childhood. According to Department statistics in the first half of 2007 the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force made 1,139 arrests in child exploitation crimes.
Gonzales tenure included the establishment of the Department’s National Security Division which coordinates counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations. The division has increased monitoring of FBI’s use of National Security Letters which were found to have been overused by the FBI in terrorism investigations.
Although morale at the Department has been diminished due to the recent months of controversy officials have remained focused on their work. A long time career official said today about Gonzales departure, "People really aren’t discussing it much … people are focused on their work."
The Department’s political appointees turned out in high numbers to fill the Department’s Great Hall, also in attendance were Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, White House counsel Fred Fielding, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and Homeland security Advisor Fran Townsend.
The warm overture and feelings did not extend to outside of the Department where about 50 protestors from the anti-war group Code Pink, several with signs reading "LIAR" and "IMPEACH", held their own gathering denouncing Gonzales.
Members of the group often heckled Gonzales during his Senate testimony and would often come by the Department’s Main Justice Building with bull-horns yelling for his resignation.
And when approached by this reporter in the halls at DOJ employees when asked about Gonzales last day expressed little interest and wanted to discuss who his replacement might be as the Attorney General.
Several names have been including former Solicitor General Ted Olson, who attended the ceremony, and former Deputy Attorney Generals, Larry Thompson and George Terwilliger.