- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Attorney General John Ashcroft, despite a threat of a contempt of Congress citation, steadfastly refused yesterday to tell a Senate committee whether he sent confidential memos to President Bush justifying the use of torture on captured al Qaeda terrorists.

At a contentious Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Mr. Ashcroft declined to answer questions on whether he advised Mr. Bush that torture of the terrorists under certain circumstances was justified under U.S. law and international treaties, saying the president had “a right to hear advice from his attorney general in confidence.”

“I’m not going to comment on the memos and advice I give to the executive departments of government,” he said.

Mr. Ashcroft added, however, that Mr. Bush had given “no order that would require or direct the violation of any law of the United States enacted by the Congress, or any treaty to which the United States is party.” He said, “This administration rejects torture.”

The Bush administration has described the memos as legal opinions, which were used to formulate policies concerning the conduct of the war on terrorism.

Angry committee Democrats wanted Mr. Ashcroft to explain whether he, through the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, advised the White House in 2002 and 2003 that U.S. authorities might not be bound by laws prohibiting torture.

“You may be in contempt of Congress,” Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware warned during the three-hour hearing. “You are not allowed, under our Constitution, not to answer our questions. You all better come up with a good rationale, because otherwise it’s contempt of Congress.”

Challenged by Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois to cite a federal statute to justify his refusal to share the memos with the committee, Mr. Ashcroft said his refusal was “protected by the doctrine of separation of powers in the Constitution.”

That response drew an immediate rebuke from Mr. Durbin, who shot back: “You are not citing a law.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, saying the committee was investigating suspected inmate abuse at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, asked the attorney general directly for copies of three Justice Department memos the senator said advised the White House that torturing al Qaeda terrorists might be justified, and that international laws against torture could be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations.

“Will you provide those to the committee?” Mr. Kennedy asked, showing photographs of suspected prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

“No, I will not,” Mr. Ashcroft sternly responded, denying any connection between the memos and the suspected abuse at Abu Ghraib. He said specific accusations of abuse at the prison were being investigated by the Justice Department and that seven U.S. soldiers had been targeted in connection with suspected atrocities.

“They are being investigated by this administration,” he told the committee.

Mr. Ashcroft also refused to tell Mr. Kennedy whether the attorney general had been authorized by Mr. Bush to invoke executive privilege in refusing to release the memos, saying he had not invoked any privilege regarding the documents, testifying only that he would refuse to turn them over.

“I am not going to reveal discussions — whether I’ve had them or not had them — with the president. He asked me to deal with him as a matter of confidence. I have not invoked the executive privilege today … I have just explained to you why I am not turning over the documents,” he said.

The memos, written for the CIA and addressed to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, reportedly outlined the president’s wartime national security authority, saying in certain circumstances it may override antitorture laws and treaties, including the Geneva Conventions.

None of the panel’s Republicans challenged Mr. Ashcroft on the memos, taking the lead of Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who said most people “understand the importance of getting good, confidential advice from staff, especially legal advice.”

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