Attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales drew scorching criticism from Senate Democrats on Thursday for his role in Bush administration policies on the treatment of terror suspects. He repudiated torture tactics and vowed at a contentious confirmation hearing to abide by international treaties on prisoner rights.
"I will no longer represent only the White House. I will represent the United States of America and its people. I understand the difference between the two roles," President Bush's counsel told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
His assurances did little to placate Democrats.
"America's troops and citizens are at greater risk" because of administration policies that are "tantamount to torture," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel's top Democrat.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., told Gonzales that policies he supported or helped formulate "have been used by the administration, the military and the CIA to justify torture and Geneva Convention violations by military and civilian personnel."
Despite the Democratic fireworks, Gonzales' nomination was widely expected to be confirmed by the GOP-led Senate. Even his detractors praised the rags-to-riches story of the Texas-raised son of Mexican immigrants.
"The road you traveled....all the way to the White House is a tribute to you and your family," Leahy said.
Gonzales, 49, seated by himself at the witness table, answered pointed questions in a calm, even voice. His wife, three sons, mother-in-law and a brother sat behind him in the first row of the audience.
Before Gonzales' confirmation hearing got under way, the White House refused to provide senators additional documents on his role in the decision to allow aggressive interrogations of terrorism detainees, adding to the administration's confrontation with congressional Democrats over the now-repudiated policies.
David Leitch, the White House's deputy counsel, told committee Democrats in a letter released Thursday that the administration had already turned over all of the documents it plans to.
Democrats seized on the hearing as an opportunity to heap criticism on the outgoing attorney general, John Ashcroft.
"The previous attorney general ran the most secretive Justice Department in my lifetime," said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. "Will you continue the John Ashcroft 'my way or the highway' approach, which often led to embarrassment?"
Gonzales sidestepped the question.
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said his committee would closely scrutinize Gonzales' involvement in a January 2002 memo he wrote on the treatment of enemy prisoners and his role in crafting presidential orders on detainee policy.
Specter bluntly asked Gonzales: "Do you approve of torture?"
"Absolutely not, senator," he responded.
Asked about the torture scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, Gonzales said he was "sickened and outraged by those photos." But he declined to give a legal opinion on the alleged abuses, suggesting he didn't want to prejudice a possible criminal case if he becomes attorney general.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush had "full trust" in Gonzales and hoped the Senate would "move forward quickly."
Looming over Thursday's hearing was speculation that Bush might name Gonzales to a vacancy on the Supreme Court once one occurs, a possibility mentioned by several committee members.
"Let me make it clear, I am not a candidate for the Supreme Court," Gonzales said.
"Just in case it happens, one standard is different than the other," said Schumer, suggesting Senate support for Gonzales' nomination as attorney general would not necessarily translate into support for him if he's nominated to the high court.
Even as they grilled him on administration policy on terror suspects, Democrats on the panel were generous in praising the man who would be the nation's first Hispanic attorney general.
"This is not about your intelligence, this hearing is not about your competence, it's not about your integrity — it's about your judgment and your candor," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del. "We're looking for candor, old buddy. I love you, but you're not very candid so far."
Some of the harshest criticism came from Kennedy, who bore in hard on Gonzales' involvement in presidential directives which gave CIA interrogators more leeway in their treatment of terror suspects.
"We had captured some really bad people" who had information that might save American lives, Gonzales said.
A 1994 law imposes harsh penalties on those convicted of torturing prisoners.
Gonzales defended his conclusion that the Geneva Convention protections for prisoners of war did not apply to terror suspects, including those being held in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, who were mostly captured in Afghanistan.
"My judgment was...that it would not apply to al-Qaida — they weren't a signatory to the convention," he said.
However, Gonzales testified that the conventions clearly applied to prisoners in Iraq.
Democrats questioned Gonzales' closeness to Bush, suggesting it might cloud his judgment. They met during Bush's 1994 gubernatorial campaign and Bush hired him as his counsel before appointing him to the state Supreme Court.
"You know there are going to be times when the attorney general of the United States has to enforce the law of the United States. He can't be worried about friends or colleagues at the White House. His duty is to all Americans," said Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Gonzales responded that he knew the difference. He sidestepped questions on efforts by Senate Democrats to block Bush's judicial nominees, saying a move by GOP leaders to crush Democratic filibusters on constitutional grounds was an internal Senate matter.
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