Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales is expected to tell a Senate committee today that the Bush administration has not authorized, ordered or directed the torture of prisoners detained by the U.S. military — a position that he will support if confirmed.

Criticized by some Democrats, civil rights groups, activist organizations and retired military officers for his role in writing White House policy regarding prisoners held in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Gonzales will tell the Senate Judiciary Committee at the opening of his confirmation hearing that as attorney general, he would follow international treaties and the government’s policies against torture.

According to a prepared statement, Mr. Gonzales will say that the United States had “fundamental decisions to make” after the September 11 attacks on how to apply treaties and U.S. law “to an enemy that does not wear a uniform, owes no allegiance to any country, is not a party to any treaties and — most importantly — does not fight according to the laws of war.”

“As we have debated these questions, the president has made clear that he is prepared to protect and defend the United States and its citizens and will do so vigorously, but always in a manner consistent with our nation’s values and applicable law, including our treaty obligations,” he said.

“I pledge that, if I am confirmed as attorney general, I will abide by those commitments.”

His statement is similar to comments he made in June, when he told reporters during a White House briefing that President Bush was aware of his duty to “protect this nation” against terrorist attacks, but that in the war against al Qaeda and its supporters, the United States would “follow its treaty obligations and U.S. law, both of which prohibit the use of torture.”

Some Democrats and others have sought to turn the Gonzales confirmation hearings into a referendum on abuses of U.S. military detainees.

Although his approval by the committee and the Senate as the country’s 80th attorney general — and the first Hispanic in the post — seems assured, Judiciary Committee Democrats will press him to explain the administration’s policy on torture that they say led to well-documented abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the panel’s ranking Democrat, warned Mr. Gonzales in a letter on Tuesday that his refusal to turn over memos outlining those policies would result in a “contentious issue” — a not-so-veiled threat in the confirmation process.

“I am disappointed that contrary to your promises to me to engage in an open exchange and to answer my questions in connection with your confirmation process, you have not answered my letters,” Mr. Leahy wrote, adding that the requested information — eight White House memos and documents — was “relevant to your nomination.”

Key among the requested documents is a Jan. 25, 2002, memo suggesting that Geneva Convention protections for prisoners of war did not apply to Taliban fighters detained in Afghanistan or suspected al Qaeda members held worldwide as part of the war on terrorism. In that memo, Mr. Gonzales said the United States was fighting “a new type of warfare — one not contemplated in 1949 when Geneva was framed — and requires a new approach in our actions toward captured terrorists.”

Critics have charged that Mr. Gonzales oversaw the development of Bush administration policies used in the handling of prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, despite warnings by U.S. military leaders that they would undermine respect for the law in the military. The critics have said those policies led to the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.

But partisans on both sides say, at least privately, that Mr. Gonzales likely will be confirmed with support from Democrats.

Introducing and testifying on behalf of Mr. Gonzales today will be Sen. Ken Salazar, the newly elected Democrat from Colorado. Mr. Salazar’s introduction, which came as a surprise to some Democrats, signals some bipartisan support for Mr. Gonzales.

Another Hispanic Democrat — former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros — wrote a column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal voicing his support for Mr. Gonzales.

“Judge Gonzales is better qualified that many recent attorneys general,” Mr. Cisneros wrote. “His confirmation by the Senate can be part of America’s steady march toward liberty and justice for all.”

Mr. Cisneros also noted the growing influence of Hispanic voters in national politics, saying that 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’s nomination.”

Mr. Gonzales, 49, was born in San Antonio, the son of migrant workers who never finished elementary school. He graduated from Rice University, and later attended Harvard University Law School. After private practice in Houston, he was named in 1995 as Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s general counsel, later serving as Texas secretary of state and as a member of the Texas Supreme Court. He was appointed White House counsel in 2001.

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