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Attorney General Lays Out New Goals for Justice Department

By Eric Lichtblau

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Laying out his law enforcement priorities for the first time since taking office. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales urged Congress on Monday to speed the process for deporting illegal immigrants, end the impasse over judicial nominees and extend federal anti-terrorism powers under the USA Patriot Act.

Gonzales also said he expected the Justice Department to look for more aggressive ways to prosecute obscenity crimes, and he announced the creation of five federal-local task forces nationwide in an effort to curtail violent crime.

The wide-ranging priorities, spelled out by Gonzales in a speech before the Hoover Institution, a public policy research center, were largely a continuation of the policies of his predecessor, John Ashcroft, particularly in the emphasis on aggressive counterterrorism measures.

The Senate confirmed Gonzales on Feb. 3 by a vote of 60-36. The vote was closer than many had expected and came after Democrats mounted an attack on Gonzales’ role at the White House in developing policies on the treatment of prisoners in the campaign on terror.

Three weeks into his new job as attorney general, Gonzales said Monday that he had to make “a few adjustments” in moving from President Bush’s White House counsel to the official in charge of 110,000 employees at the Justice Department. A former enlisted man in the Air Force, Gonzales said one of the more unsettling changes was having employees call him by the title of general, as they did with Ashcroft. (He prefers Judge Gonzales, a nod to his days on the Texas Supreme Court.)

While Gonzales’ confirmation as the first Hispanic attorney general buoyed many Hispanics, he showed no sign in his remarks on Monday of backing away from the Bush administration’s efforts to speed deportation proceedings for illegal immigrants. Under Ashcroft, the Justice Department sought to streamline the process for immigration judges to hear appeals in deportation and asylum cases, and Gonzales said the system was in need of further repair.

He said that the Justice Department and federal courts were “straining under the weight of an immigration litigation system that is broken” and that illegal immigrants facing criminal charges were receiving too many chances to appeal their fates. He urged Congress to move quickly on proposals that would expedite the process.

But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, suggested that Gonzales was misdirecting blame for the immigration backlog.

“If the attorney general wants to reduce the immigration workload of our federal courts,” Leahy said, “he should restore the fair appeals process within the Justice Department that his predecessor diminished through his misguided restructuring of the Board of Immigration Appeals.”