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US Senate Panel Approves Attorney General Nominee

A U.S. Senate panel has voted to send President Bush's nomination of Michael Mukasey as attorney general to the full Senate for a confirmation vote next week. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination on an 11-8 vote, with opponents, all Democrats, expressing concern that Mukasey has refused to identify as torture the interrogation technique known as waterboarding. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The White House immediately welcomed the Senate Judiciary Committee vote, saying in a written statement that Michael Mukasey has clearly demonstrated that he will be an exceptional attorney general.

When President Bush nominated the retired federal judge to be the nation's top law enforcer in September, Mukasey appeared to be headed for easy confirmation.

But during hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, Mukasey would not say whether an interrogation technique that simulates drowning amounts to torture, and therefore, is illegal. That gave eight Democrats on the panel cause to oppose the nomination.

Republicans noted that Mukasey sent the committee a letter calling waterboarding 'repugnant ' and vowing to study the legality of the issue if confirmed by the Senate.

Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, took aim at Mukasey's Democratic critics for trying to pressure the nominee on an issue he has yet to fully consider.

"It politicizes the Justice Department to demand that Judge Mukasey take a politically correct position on waterboarding before he can go through a legally correct process to analyze the issue," he said.

But Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, says waterboarding is illegal.

"Waterboarding is already illegal under United States law," he said. "It is illegal under the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit outrages upon personal dignity, including cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment. It is illegal under the Torture Act, which prohibits acts specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering. It is illegal under the Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibits cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. And it violates the Constitution."

Two Democrats - Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California - voted with Republicans in support of Mukasey after the nominee assured them that if lawmakers approve legislation declaring waterboarding illegal, he would uphold it.

"He has personally made clear to me that if Congress passed further legislation in this area, the president would have no legal authority to ignore it and Judge Mukasey would enforce it," said Senator Schumer.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and a military lawyer, says he would support such legislation.

"If we go down the road of trying to reserve in special circumstances our ability to breach conventions and laws that we have enacted for the good, then we will have in my opinion, given the enemy a great victory," he explained. "The world is not short of people in countries who will waterboard you. There is not a shortage of people who will cut your heads off in the name of religion. There is a shortage of people who believe in justice, not vengeance."

Waterboarding has been condemned as torture by human rights groups, and the United States prosecuted a Japanese soldier for a war crime, because he used the technique on a civilian during World War II. The U.S. military has banned the practice, but human-rights groups say the Central Intelligence Agency has used it on terrorism suspects in recent years.