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Attorney general nominee facing questions on torture, wiretapping

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  • Nomination hearings for Michael Mukasey begin Wednesday
  • Attorney general nominee expected to be confirmed, chairman says
  • Senators expected to ask Mukasey about views on torture policy, wiretapping
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From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush's nominee for attorney general will face tough questioning on a range of hot-button issues -- including no-warrant surveillance and torture policy -- during confirmation hearings Wednesday.

But warnings of a potentially bumpy confirmation process for Michael Mukasey have given way to predictions of smooth sailing for the retired federal judge.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, emerged from a meeting with Mukasey Tuesday and declared he expects Mukasey to be confirmed.

"What I've seen, I would expect him to be confirmed, because we know that we need somebody to clean up the Department of Justice," Leahy said after a private 30-minute meeting with Mukasey.

Mukasey, who was appointed to the bench by President Reagan in 1988 and retired in 2006, will appear before Leahy's committee Wednesday and Thursday.

The senator said he does not expect surprises at the confirmation hearings. "I don't see a bombshell on the horizon," he said.

In recent statements, Leahy had expressed some caution on the nomination, but he appeared satisfied after the meeting.

He said, however, that during the hearings he would continue to ask Mukasey about his views on the use of torture.

The issue came to the forefront earlier this month when the New York Times reported the Justice Department had issued a memo in 2005 that the newspaper called "an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency."

The 2005 legal opinion was issued after then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the man Mukasey would replace, took over Justice, the Times reported, and authorized using a combination of techniques such as slaps to the head, freezing temperatures and simulated drownings, known as waterboarding.

"We know that the outgoing attorney general let a memo go to the White House basically allowing torture even though the public posture of the president was we do not torture," Leahy said, adding he wants Mukasey "to state on the record clearly what his position will be because his last attorney general acted as though the president was above the law and the Department of Justice was an arm of the White House instead of being the Justice Department of the United States."

Democratic senators have said they will demand assurances the Justice Department will operate independently of White House political operatives.

Leahy indicated his meeting had largely put that issue to rest.

"Everything I've heard from him I hear a man who's not willing to give up his independence to anybody -- not to either political party, not to a president. That's the way the attorney general should be," he said.

The administration's no-warrant wiretapping program is also expected to be a focus of senators' questions.

In an October 12 letter to members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Verizon Communications said it provided tens of thousands of records relating to customers to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies that made emergency requests without a court order or administrative subpoena since 2005.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, said he will press Mukasey on the no-warrant wiretapping issue.

"The president did not comply with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act" when setting up the program, Specter said. "We never have had a judicial determination about whether he was justified in doing it. That's a complex constitutional task. And we have never had that question answered."

The soft-spoken Mukasey is expected to avoid confrontation in his testimony, but two thorny issues are the limits of presidential power and the ongoing dispute over congressional access to Justice Department documents.

Previous unmet demands from Congress for internal Justice Department documents could complicate the proceedings if committee Democrats "decide to pick that fight," a Justice official cautioned Monday.

Specter has urged the committee not to use the demand for sensitive documents as a precondition for nomination approval.

Several Democrats, backed by civil liberties groups, have demanded documents relating to torture, interrogation, detention and no-warrant wiretapping.

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However, key Democrats acknowledge the decisions on turning over sensitive documents ultimately rest with the White House, not with the attorney general. They said the document access issues would be pursued with the White House "on a parallel track" apart from the Mukasey hearings.

Barring surprises, administration and congressional officials expect Mukasey's testimony to be completed in two days and remaining witnesses to conclude late Thursday or Friday. Leahy has set no date for a vote, although committee sources said if the hearings go relatively smoothly, a vote is likely by the end of October or early November. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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