Attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales vowed on Thursday to abide by international treaties on prisoner treatment if confirmed, but Senate critics asserted that policies he supported led to the torture of terrorism detainees and protested his closeness to President Bush.
"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 Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Gonzales responded tersely in his opening statement to the panel. "I will no longer represent only the White House.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."
As Gonzales' confirmation hearing got under way, the White House refused to provide senators additional documents his role in the decision to allow aggressive interrogations of terrorism detainees.
Senate Democrats say the White House has refused to give them all of the memos and documents they need to trace how that decision was made so they can review Gonzales' role and how it would affect him as the nation's top law enforcement official.
But David Leitch, the White House's deputy counsel, told ranking Judiciary Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont in a letter released Thursday that the administration has already turned over all of the documents it plans to.
Gonzales faces criticism from Democrats concerning a January 2002 memo he wrote arguing that the war on terrorism "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
A month later, Mr. Bush signed an order declaring he had the authority to bypass the accords "in this or future conflicts." Mr. Bush's order also said the Geneva treaty's references to prisoners of war did not apply to al Qaeda or "unlawful combatants" from the Taliban.
Some Gonzales critics say that decision and his memo justifying it helped lead to the torture scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and prisoner abuses in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"At best, the memo represented poor judgment: shortsighted overzealousness on the part of a group of professional lawyers who should have known better," reports CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. "At worst, the memo represented all that our enemies (and some friends) think of us: that we are ugly Americans willing to bend the rules (in this case, international law and norms) when they do not suit our purposes."
In his prepared Senate testimony, Gonzales repeated the argument that terrorists are not soldiers and so are not covered by the Geneva treaty. Nonetheless, he said, "we must be committed to preserving civil rights and civil liberties."
Mr. Bush has made clear that the government will defend Americans from terrorists "in a manner consistent with our nation's values and applicable law, including our treaty obligations," Gonzales said in the prepared testimony. "I pledge that, if I am confirmed as attorney general, I will abide by those commitments."
by Attorney General Nominee Alberto Gonzales.
Last June, the Justice Department withdrew its 2002 memos arguing that the president's wartime authority supersedes laws and treaties governing treatment of prisoners.
Gonzales has repudiated torture before. "The president has stated that this administration does not condone torture. If anyone engages in such conduct, he or she will be held accountable," Gonzales said in a White House online discussion on July 7.
Democrats aren't satisfied with just those statements and say they plan to question Gonzales extensively about his paper trail in crafting the government's policies on questioning foreign prisoners.
"It is clear he was in the chain receiving this critical documentation relative to changing American standards on the treatment of prisoners, so he was not a bystander, he was part of it," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
But Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the criticism is partisan, and that it is settled law that Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners are not protected by the Geneva Conventions. "Now, I hate to ruin a good story for the President's political opponents. But there is one important problem with this criticism: Judge Gonzales is right," Cornyn said in remarks prepared for his introduction of Gonzales.
John Yoo, who helped write the key memo at Justice's Office of Legal Counsel that critics said appeared to condone torture, said Gonzales and top Justice officials did not attempt to influence or interfere with the content, although they were briefed on drafts.
"The idea that the Office of Legal Counsel was providing advice that was dictated, demanded or influenced by the White House, that's just flatly untrue," said Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
Even Democrats say they expect Gonzales to be confirmed. Republicans control a Senate split between 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent.
Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, one of the first Hispanics elected to the Senate in more than 20 years and one of only two newly elected Democrats in November, plans to introduce Gonzales at the hearing. Salazar has said he intends to vote for Gonzales.
On Tuesday, a dozen retired generals and admirals expressed "deep concern" about Gonzales' nomination.
The high-ranking officers include retired Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They made their views known in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging members to question Gonzales aggressively about whether he now believes that torture may be used in some instances and whether anti-torture laws and treaties like the Geneva Conventions apply to anyone captured by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The full extent of Mr. Gonzales' role in endorsing the use of torture remains unclear," retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar said at a news conference organized by the group Human Rights First.