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Gonzalez Grilled Over Drowning Torture
Washington -- White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales rejected the use of torture on terrorist suspects and vowed Thursday that he would protect Americans' civil liberties if he is confirmed as the nation's next attorney general.
At his Senate confirmation hearing, the 49-year-old former Texas Supreme Court justice faced tough criticism from Democrats for his role in drafting memos that defended the use of torture and justified the lengthy detention of enemy captives.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said the legal policies shaped by Bush's top lawyer "have been used by the administration, the military and the CIA to justify torture and Geneva Convention violations by military and civilian personnel."
In his testimony, Gonzales defended the White House's anti-terrorism policies, but also insisted that he never approved a legal opinion justifying the use of torture to extract information from suspects.
"I share (the president's) resolve that torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "If confirmed, I will ensure the Department of Justice aggressively pursues those responsible for such abhorrent actions."
Lawmakers also questioned whether Gonzales, a confidant of President Bush since serving as counsel to then-Gov. Bush in Texas, could be independent enough of the White House to serve impartially as chief enforcer of the nation's laws.
Gonzales, who is expected to win confirmation and become the first Hispanic attorney general, said he recognized he would be assuming a new role.
"I will no longer represent only the White House, I will represent the United States of America and its people," he said. "I understand the differences between the two roles."
Gonzales was unflappable through more than six hours of televised testimony, appearing polished, modest and affable. He managed to smile even under aggressive questioning from administration critics on the committee.
But he was vague in response to some questions, and Democrats complained he didn't fully discuss his involvement in a series of controversial memos about the treatment of terrorist suspects.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., joked at one point, "Mr. Gonzales, I'd almost think that you'd served in the Senate, you've learned how to filibuster so well."
Gonzales was engaging in damage control after news reports this week detailed the role he played in shaping an August 2002 memo by Justice Department lawyers, which argued that U.S. interrogators could use torture against terrorist suspects without facing criminal penalties.
Gonzales told the senators that the opinion was sought by intelligence officials after the arrests of several terrorist suspects, including al Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaydah.
"We had captured some really bad people who we were concerned had information that might prevent the loss of American lives in the future," Gonzales said. "It was important to receive that information. ... The agencies wanted to be sure that they would not do anything that would violate our legal obligations. And so they did the right thing: They asked questions. 'What is lawful conduct?' "
The memo, requested by Gonzales and prepared by Justice Department lawyers, stated that physical acts of "an extreme nature" could be used to extract information from terrorist suspects as long as interrogators had the president's approval and were not seeking to inflict bodily harm.
When the memo was leaked last summer, the policy was widely condemned. The legal opinion has since been abandoned, and last week the Justice Department released a new definition of torture, calling the tactic "abhorrent. "
At the hearing, Kennedy pointed out that Gonzales had attended meetings with Justice Department officials where methods of torture were discussed -- including "water boarding," where a suspect is strapped to a board, turned upside down, and immersed in a wet towel to simulate the feeling of drowning.
"Did you ever suggest to them that they ought to lean forward on this issue about supporting the extreme uses of torture?" Kennedy asked.
Gonzales said he never urged Justice Department lawyers to come to any specific conclusions and never approved of any specific torture tactics.
"It was not my role to direct that we should use certain kinds of methods of receiving information from terrorists," he said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who introduced the nominee from his home state, said Gonzales and Justice Department lawyers were not crafting a new policy, but interpreting a 1994 law that set severe penalties for those who committed torture.
"President Bush and Judge Gonzales have both unequivocally, clearly, and repeatedly rejected the use of torture," Cornyn said. "But is there anyone here today who would fail to use every legal means to collect intelligence from terrorists that can save American lives? I certainly hope not."
Gonzales tried to distance himself from a Jan. 25, 2002, memo he wrote, arguing that the war on terrorism "renders obsolete (the Geneva Conventions') strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
In his testimony, he said, "Contrary to reports, I consider the Geneva Conventions neither obsolete nor quaint."
But he defended the administration's decision not to extend the protections offered under the Geneva Conventions to al Qaeda suspects, saying to do so would "honor and reward bad conduct" and make it easier for terrorist captives to share information and plot new attacks.
He noted that Iraqi captives had never been denied legal protections because the country had signed the Geneva Conventions.
Critics believe that Gonzales' memo provided the legal justification for the lengthy detentions of suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and may have contributed to the prisoner abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Gonzales said Thursday that he was "sickened and outraged" by the Abu Ghraib scandal. But he rejected the idea that White House policies contributed to the abuse and instead blamed the individual soldiers involved.
"This was simply people who were morally bankrupt trying -- having fun, " he said. "And I condemn that."
Gonzales faced criticism from an unexpected source Thursday -- Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Graham, a reserve appellate military judge, said the memos Gonzales helped draft had contributed to the view in the Muslim world that the United States mistreats detainees.
"When you start looking at torture statutes and you look at ways around the spirit of the law, then you're losing the moral high ground," Graham said.
What they said
"I think it's safe to say that everyone agrees that Abu Ghraib represents a shameful episode in this nation's history. Yet some people actually want to exploit that tragedy for their own purposes. ... So if there is no evidence whatsoever that Judge Gonzales was any way responsible for the criminal acts that occurred at Abu Ghraib by a few, why are we talking about this at Judge Gonzales' confirmation hearing?"
-- Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas
"So there's a certain kind of sense by many of us here that the administration -- and you're the point person on the administration -- has not been forthcoming on the whole issues of torture. . . . Now, the ... torture memoranda, written at your request ... made abuse of interrogation easier, it sharply narrowed the definition of torture and recognized this new defense for officials who commit torture. For two years -- for two years -- from August 2002 to June 2004, you never repudiated it. That's the record. You never repudiated it."
-- Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
"As we fight the war on terror, we must always honor and observe the principles that make our society so unique and worthy of protection. We must be committed to preserving civil rights and civil liberties."
-- Alberto Gonzales