President Bush's nominee to be U.S. Attorney General came under harsh questioning from U.S. lawmakers Thursday for his role in shaping policies that critics say paved the way to the alleged torture of terror suspects.
At a confirmation hearing, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee focused on several documents drafted or approved by White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales in 2002 relating to the treatment of detainees.
In one, he advised President Bush that terror suspects should not have prisoner of war status under the Geneva Conventions.
Democrats, such as Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, say Judge Gonzales' opinions may have contributed to the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and abuse at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"White House Counsel Judge Gonzales was at the center of discussions on the applicability of the Geneva Conventions in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the legality of detention and interrogation methods that have been seen as tantamount to torture," said Mr. Leahy. "You oversaw the formulation of this administration's extreme views of unfettered executive power, of unprecedented government secrecy. I hope things will be different if you are confirmed, Judge Gonzales."
Even a Republican, who plans to vote for the nomination of Judge Gonzales, expressed concern. Senator Lyndsey Graham of South Carolina has served as a judge in the U.S. Air Force. "This legal memo I think put our troops in jeopardy because the uniform code of military justice specifically makes it a crime for a member of our uniformed forces to abuse a detainee," he said.
But under repeated questioning from lawmakers, including Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, Judge Gonzales said he never advocated torture.
Durbin: "Can U.S. personnel legally engage in torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under any circumstances?"
Gonzales: "Absolutely not. Our policy is we do not engage in torture."
Judge Gonzales vowed to abide by international treaties on prisoner treatment if confirmed by the Senate.
But he did defend his opinion that the Geneva Conventions should not apply to al-Qaida because it is not a signatory to the treaties, although he said al-Qaida detainees should be treated humanely.
"I think the decision not to apply the Geneva Conventions in our conflict with al-Qaida was absolutely the right decision for a variety of reasons," said Mr. Gonzales. "First of all, it would be a dishonor to the Geneva Convention. It would honor and reward bad conduct. It would make it more difficult for our troops to win in the conflict with al-Qaida ,because it would limit our ability to solicit information from detainees. It would require us to keep detainees housed together where they could share information, they could coordinate their stories, they could plan attacks against guards, it would mean they would enjoy combat immunity from prosecutions of certain war crimes."
Under questioning from committee chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, Judge Gonzales said he was shaken by the photographs of U.S. soldiers abusing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, but he refused to describe the activity as a violation of law.
Specter: "For the record, do you condemn the interrogators' techniques at Abu Ghraib shown on the widely publicized photographs?"
Gonzales: "Let me say that as a human being, I am sickened and outraged by those photos, but as someone who may be head of the department, I obviously do not want to provide any legal opinion as to whether that conduct might be criminal."
That response angered many Democrats, including Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, who suggested the nominee was being less than candid in his reluctance to call the prison abuse illegal.
"It is your obligation now for us to be able to assess your judgment, your legal judgment," said Mr. Biden. "You are in no way jeopardizing a future case. That is malarkey, pure malarkey! We are looking for candor, old buddy."
Republicans praised the nominee, who would become the first Hispanic-American to become Attorney General if confirmed. They highlighted his life story: the son of Mexican immigrants who served in the Air Force, went on to graduate from Harvard Law School, and then was tapped by then-Texas Governor Bush to serve on that state's Supreme Court.
"He is a source of great inspiration and pride to his family and his friends, and all of us who call the great state of Texas home," said Senator John Cornyn of Texas. "Time and time again Judge Gonzales has done his duty in the war on terrorism."
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush had full trust in Judge Gonzales.
Despite the controversy surrounding Judge Gonzales' opinions, he is expected to be confirmed. He would succeed John Ashcroft, who himself has come under criticism for implementing anti-terrorism legislation that some have described as undermining civil liberties.