Gonzales faces tough questions at hearing
Dems grill attorney general nominee on torture
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Alberto Gonzales, President Bush's nominee for attorney general, faced tough questions Thursday from Senate Judiciary Committee members at a hearing focusing on the administration's position on the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and the war on terror.
White House counsel Gonzales appeared before the committee in the first step of what was shaping up to be a bruising confirmation process.
Toward the end of the nearly daylong hearing, Gonzales acknowledged he made mistakes.
"I will be the first to admit I am not perfect and I make mistakes," Gonzales told the committee after being asked if any mistakes involving him were made in the war on terror.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the committee, then exclaimed, "Glory hallelujah, you're the first one in the administration that's said that."
Gonzales did not elaborate, but said he hopes he "learned from those mistakes."
The hearing began with sharp questioning from the committee's chairman on the handling of detainees.
"Do you approve of torture?" asked Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican.
"Absolutely not," Gonzales answered.
Gonzales has been criticized for a Justice Department memo on Afghanistan detainees that was addressed to him. In the August 2002 memo, then-Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee wrote, "We conclude that torture as defined ... covers only extreme acts."
According to Bybee, U.S. law defined "severe" pain as that "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death."
Asked by Leahy if he agreed with that position at the time, Gonzales answered: "I don't recall today whether or not I was in agreement with all of the analysis. But I don't have a disagreement with the conclusions then reached by the department."
He said that the Justice Department was responsible for interpreting the law.
"We asked the question. That memo represented the position of the executive branch at the time it was issued," Gonzales said.
He said he does not now agree with that interpretation and that it does not reflect the administration's position.
When Leahy asked if the president has the authority to override laws against torture and immunize officials from prosecution, Gonzales replied, "The president has said we're not going to engage in torture under any circumstances. And so you're asking me to answer a hypothetical that is never going to occur."
In response to heated questioning by Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, Gonzales acknowledged the memo was addressed to him but said he could not recall if he requested it.
The administration has maintained it does not allow torture. Last month, the Justice Department issued a new memo more broadly defining actions that would be considered torture. (Full story)
But critics charge that the administration's policies opened the door to such behavior as the abuse of prisoners documented in photos taken at Iraq's Abu Ghraib facility. (Prisoner abuse timeline)
Gonzales told the committee that he "was sickened and outraged by those photos."
But he said he did not want to provide a legal opinion as to whether the conduct at Abu Ghraib was criminal, citing ongoing prosecutions.
However, Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, accused Gonzales of hiding behind a "straw man" to avoid answering questions.
"That's malarkey," Biden said. "You are obliged to comment. That's your judgment we're looking at. ... We're looking for candor."
Gonzales also has been criticized for a January 2002 memo that he wrote to Bush. In that memo, he argued the terrorism fight "renders obsolete [the Geneva Conventions'] strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
Numerous civil rights groups have voiced opposition to Gonzales, and a dozen retired military leaders sent a letter to the committee expressing "deep concern" about his nomination. (Full story)
Meanwhile, other lawmakers were open in their support of the nominee.
"You've acted, I think, with the highest honor as White House counsel," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican. "I stand ready and willing to help you."
In his opening statement, Gonzales said, "Wherever we pursue justice -- from the war on terror to corporate fraud to civil rights -- we must always be faithful to the rule of law.
"I want to make very clear that I am deeply committed to the rule of law."
Leahy also expressed concerns about Gonzales' close ties to the White House.
"At a time when the Republican Party has control of all three branches of the federal government, my worry is that the system of checks and balances may become short-circuited," Leahy said.
"During several high-profile matters in your professional career, you have appeared to serve as a facilitator rather than an independent force in the policy-making process."
Gonzales told the panel that if he is confirmed, he would no longer solely represent the White House.
"I will represent the United States of America and its people," he said. "I understand the differences between the two roles. In the former, I have been privileged to advise the president and his staff.
"In the latter, I would have a far broader responsibility: to pursue justice for all the people of our great nation; to see that the laws are enforced in a fair and impartial manner for all Americans."
He said that after the September 11, 2001, attacks the government had "fundamental decisions to make concerning how to apply treaties and U.S. law to an enemy that does not wear a uniform, owes no allegiance to a country, is not a party to any treaties, and -- most importantly -- does not fight according to the laws of war."
Senators also peppered Gonzales with questions on topics including abortion, technology, the telecommunications industry and the death penalty. Some strongly criticized the actions of departing Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Sen. Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, asked Gonzales if he was certain of the guilt of all those executed in Texas when Gonzales was chief counsel under then-Gov. George W. Bush.
"I could not have made a recommendation for the governor to deny clemency if there was any question in my mind," Gonzales said. But, "if we are going to apply the death penalty ... it ought to be applied fairly."