U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is refusing to turn over to U.S. lawmakers documents that are said to advise the White House that some torture could be justified during interrogations in the war on terrorism.
At issue are memoranda written by Bush administration lawyers that reportedly say an international ban on torture "may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations" in the war on terror.
The Washington Post Tuesday reports the memos established a rationale in which the president was not necessarily bound by international laws and treaties banning torture because of his authority as commander-in-chief during the war on terrorism.
In an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Ashcroft said that while the administration "rejects torture", he would not comment on the memoranda or release copies to the committee.
"I am refusing to disclose these memos because I believe it is essential to the operation of the executive branch that the president have the opportunity to get information from his attorney general that is confidential," said Mr. Aschroft. "And that the responsibility to do that is a function of the executive branch and is a necessity that is protected by the doctrine of the separation of powers in the Constitution."
That drew angry responses from Democrats.
"Mr. Attorney General, with all due respect, your personal belief is not a law," said Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois. "You are not citing a law. You are not claiming executive privilege. Frankly, that is what contempt of Congress is all about. You have to give us a specific legal authority which gives you the right to say 'no', or the president has to claim privilege. You have done neither."
Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, sought to link the memoranda with the abuses of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison. "We know when we have these kinds of orders what happens. We get the stress test. We get the use of dogs. We get the use of force, nakedness, that we have all seen. We get the hooded," said Mr. Kennedy. "This is what directly results when you have that kind of memoranda out there."
Attorney General Ashcroft strongly denied Mr. Kennedy's assertions, and said the United States has abided by international conventions barring torture.
Under questioning from Senator Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, Mr. Ashcroft said the president has not issued any order that would immunize from prosecution those who interrogate al-Qaida terror suspects.
After three hours of tough questioning, committee chairman, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch came to the attorney general's defense.
"I have a great deal of empathy for you in this position. It is a tough job," said Mr. Hatch. "People can distort what you say. They can fail to understand what you are saying. You have had to be very careful about what you have said here today, and I fully understand why."
But Democrats are not giving up. Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the committee, issued a written statement later Tuesday saying, in his words, "hiding these documents from view is a sign of a cover-up, not of cooperation".