- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales yesterday condemned torture as an interrogation technique during seven hours of rancorous questioning at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing.

“Torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration,” Mr. Gonzales said. “I will ensure the Department of Justice aggressively pursues those responsible for such abhorrent actions.”

The lengthy hearing was dominated by questions from Democrats and some Republicans about Mr. Gonzales’ role as White House counsel in helping shape Bush administration policies that they said led to the abandonment of the Geneva Conventions and the torture of military detainees in the war on terror.

Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, immediately set the tone, asking Mr. Gonzales directly: “Do you approve of torture?”

“Absolutely not, Senator,” responded Mr. Gonzales.

Throughout the sometimes bitter and often terse questioning, senators dwelled mostly on the issue of so-called “torture memos” written by Mr. Gonzales as White House counsel.

The grilling carries the risk of a political backlash from Hispanics. Mr. Gonzales, who would be the first Hispanic attorney general, has won glowing endorsements from such liberal Hispanic groups as the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens and, this week, received the endorsement of Henry Cisneros, President Clinton’s housing secretary.

The former San Antonio mayor said in a Wall Street Journal column that Mr. Gonzales was the only Republican for whom he had ever voted — for the Texas Supreme Court.

“As an American of Latino heritage, I also want to convey the immense sense of pride that Latinos across the nation feel because of Judge Gonzales’ nomination,” Mr. Cisneros added.

In his opening statement, the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, questioned Mr. Gonzales’ role in what he called the “tragic legal and policy changes formulated in secret by this administration” concerning the abuse of military detainees in can Citizens and, this week, received the endorsement of Henry Cisneros, President Clinton’s housing secretary.

The former San Antonio mayor said in a Wall Street Journal column that Mr. Gonzales was the only Republican for whom he had ever voted — for the Texas Supreme Court.

“As an American of Latino heritage, I also want to convey the immense sense of pride that Latinos across the nation feel because of Judge Gonzales’ nomination,” Mr. Cisneros added.

In his opening statement, the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, questioned Mr. Gonzales’ role in what he called the “tragic legal and policy changes formulated in secret by this administration” concerning the abuse of military detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“America’s troops and citizens are at greater risk because of those actions and the terrible repercussions throughout so much of the world,” Mr. Leahy said. “The searing photographs from Abu Ghraib have made it harder to create and maintain the alliances we need to prevail against the vicious terrorists who threaten us.

“Those abuses serve as recruiting posters for the terrorists,” he said.

Of particular concern to senators on both sides of the aisle was an Aug. 1, 2002, memo written to Mr. Gonzales, which Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said “made abuse of interrogation easier.”

“It sharply narrowed the definition of torture and recognizes new defense for officials who commit torture. For two years, for two years, from August 2002 to June 2004, you never repudiated it,” Mr. Kennedy said, asking Mr. Gonzales whether the memo was written at the behest of the CIA to justify the torture of Iraqi prisoners.

“Sir, I don’t have a specific recollection,” Mr. Gonzales said. “I don’t know whether or not it was the CIA. What I can say is that after this war began against this new kind of threat, this new kind of enemy, we realized that there was a premium on receiving information.

“In many ways, this war on terror is a war about information. If we have information, we can defeat the enemy,” he said.

Republicans expressed concerns about the memo, which only last week was clarified by a new White House memo.

“I think we’ve dramatically undermined the war effort by getting on the slippery slope in terms of playing cute with the law, because it’s come back to bite us,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who served as a military lawyer in the U.S. Air Force. “Abu Ghraib has hurt us in many ways.”

In terse questioning, Mr. Graham asked the nominee to reject the original memo that gave a “torturous view of torture.” Mr. Gonzales never did.

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and other Gonzales opponents said the argument is being used by the administration to defy Geneva Conventions regulations regarding the handling of detained enemy combatants.

“The point is the president doesn’t have the authority to determine when and where the Geneva Conventions applies,” Mr. Romero said. “This administration is trying to cherry-pick when international law applies and doesn’t apply.”

Despite the tough questions, Mr. Gonzales appears to be headed for confirmation.

“I don’t know anybody who’s announced they’re against your being the next attorney general,” Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, told Mr. Gonzales. “Even those who have doubts about you say you’re going to be confirmed.”

But Mr. Biden took the opportunity to scold the nominee — and the administration as a whole — for dodging questions.

“We’re looking for candor, ol’ buddy,” he said. “We’re looking for you, when we ask you questions, to give us an answer, which you haven’t done yet. I love you, but you’re not very candid so far.”

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, described Mr. Gonzales as “the architect of the Bush administration’s policies” on the detention and treatment of military detainees after the September 11 attacks. He said Mr. Gonzales’ record raised “serious questions of judgment and commitment” to the rule of law.

“Blaming Abu Ghraib completely on renegade soldiers ignores critical decisions on torture policies made at the highest levels of our government — decisions Mr. Gonzales played a major role in making,” he said. “If we are going to hold those at the lowest levels accountable, it is only fair to hold those at the highest levels accountable.”

Mr. Durbin said that despite the “strenuous objections” of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Gonzales recommended to the president that the Geneva Conventions should not apply to the war on terrorism and issued a memo concluding that “new thinking in the law of war” was needed.

“The tortured debate about torture, conducted at the highest levels of our government, sent a signal to our commanders and troops that the law of war is an obstacle to be overcome, not a bright line that cannot be crossed,” he said.

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