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Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General

January 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: With today’s ten to eight Judiciary Committee vote, the Gonzales nomination is headed to the full Senate for confirmation.

For more on the controversy behind today’s party line voting committee, we turn to the panel’s chairman, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Welcome to you both.

When Mr. Gonzales was nominated, Sen. Leahy, you issued a statement, the first line of which was: “I like and respect Judge Gonzales.” Why did you vote against him today?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I still like Judge Gonzales. I called him yesterday prior to the vote today to tell him I would vote against him, that I was troubled by his answers on the question of terrorism, that I felt that they had one policy in place and were very, very slow to change it, in fact didn’t change it until it became public, until we started seeing the pictures of Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and that I felt that he had to show far, far more independence if he is going to be attorney general.

He is the attorney general of the whole United States, not just attorney general for the president, and that I intended to vote against him. I would not hold him up in the Senate, but I would vote against it.

We’ve had a good personal relationship, but for attorney general, a position that is supposed to represent all Americans, not just one party or one person, I felt I could not, and I explained that to him. He told me he hopes that he will prove me wrong. I said, “If he does, I will be the first to admit it.”

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Specter, you voted for him, of course. Was your vote enthusiastic?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I support Judge Gonzales for attorney general because of his background. He has an Horatio Alger story, a law degree from Harvard. He has been held responsible for things he didn’t do. The questions focused on a memorandum from the Department of Justice, which has the responsibility for establishing and interpreting the law.

And that memo had since been repudiated, and Judge Gonzales himself disagreed with it. He said that the broad expanse of executive power in that memo was something which he thought was wrong; said that the president had as much authority on interrogating detainees as he did on battlefield decisions.

Then the responsibility for structuring the questions was for the Department of Defense. And Judge Gonzales could not recall conversations two years ago, which is understandable. But he renounced torture.

He insists that all of the people be treated humanely, and the lines where there were major objections were matters which were done by the Department of Justice and by the Department of Defense; not Judge Gonzales.

MARGARET WARNER: But Sen. Specter, let me just ask you a clarifying question because I thought he did say — we are talking about this August 2002 torture memo, so-called, which had a very narrow definition of what was illegal torture.

And I thought he said, I don’t have a disagreement or — I didn’t have a disagreement with the conclusions. Are you saying he did disagree with those conclusions?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, he relied upon the Department of Justice to interpret the law. And when there were discussions about specific types of questions, he said, “Well, I was there and they were discussed.” But he did not sanction any of them specifically. It was not his role.


SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Let me make another point here.


SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: When it comes to being counsel for the president, that’s very different from being attorney general. And Judge Gonzales was emphatic in his opening statement, and said as attorney general he owes a duty to all of the American people, and not to the president, which was his responsibility as White House counsel.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Sen. Leahy, what about that point? Do you think that — I mean, this was a Justice Department memo, not a White House memo; that Gonzales is held accountable for something that he did not —

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Except that he was involved in the putting together of this memo. He was involved in presenting it to the president. He does, after all, as counsel, he has the duty to the president, but he has first and foremost a duty to the Constitution of the United States.

He said then, he said again in a press conference, and said during the hearings that he believed in a commander-in-chief override of our laws. Well, that is not a view I want to see an attorney general take. Nobody in this country is above the law, not the president, not senators, not the attorney general. And you cannot override our torture laws. They are put in there for a very clear purpose.

In fact, I’d say look what’s happening today. We read in the press about the Iraqis that we are training, the United States is training. They’re now involved in even worse torture than what we saw under Saddam Hussein, and we are told, “Well, that’s up to them. We can’t interfere.” Actually, we are in a very difficult place of interfering:

If we say nothing, then we condone it; if we say, don’t do it, they say, well, wait a minute, some of your guys did it, and only some very low-level people in your government ever got punished for that.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Leahy, let me also ask you about — we heard the question, or asked the president about it. Judge Gonzales also sent in some written answers, and there was one dealing with basically, as I read it, I think as many people read it, saying that the torture convention didn’t apply to CIA interrogators with aliens overseas. Is that how you read it, and did you have a problem with that?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: That’s not the way I read it. And we actually asked Judge Sofaer, who supports Judge Gonzales, how to write this. And he disagrees with that interpretation.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay, Sen. Specter.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Judge Gonzales said that the CIA is bound by the same rules and cannot engage in torture and is obligated for humane treatment. Judge Gonzales was faced with a lot of hypothetical questions. And one of the issues which has been debated:

What if you know that a nuclear device is about to detonate in a city and kill hundreds of thousands of people, and you have someone whom you believe can give you the information to stop the matter from occurring?

And when you face that kind of a question, and are asked about it in a hypothetical sense, it’s understandable that Judge Gonzales is not going to want to deal with that kind of a hypothetical.

And he came back again and again to the president’s policy of being against torture, and the president specifically said that it was his policy to insist on humane treatment for anybody who was detained and questioned.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Unfortunately, however, he was not dealing for those two years that they kept secret the torture memo — he was not dealing with hypotheticals; he was dealing with realities, and we saw at Abu Ghraib and also now reports from Guantanamo what came with the reality.

My feeling is that whoever the attorney general is has to be very clear that nobody is above the law, and actually Judge Gonzales would have done the president a greater service by making it very clear that not only this president, but no president is above the law.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: But it wasn’t Judge Gonzales’ memo. It was a Department of Justice memo, —


SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: — and Judge Gonzales specifically said that he disagreed and itemized items where he disagreed with the memo, and it was retracted.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Specter, let me just follow up on that and ask — Sen. Leahy has mentioned this several times and other Democrats did today. They really had doubts.

They didn’t feel that Judge Gonzales showed at his hearing real independence from the president and his agenda. Are you confident that as attorney general he would not hesitate to render a legal opinion even if it ran counter to what the president or White House wanted to do?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, Judge Gonzales was very emphatic about that question in his opening statement, and he said that as attorney general he owes a duty to the American people. That’s something that Sen. Leahy and I covered in our opening statements too because that’s very fundamental.

When he is White House counsel, he owes his allegiance to the president. It’s a very, very different relationship and I think Judge Gonzales was emphatic, and I think he can be relied upon to carry out that very fundamental distinction. And we have a lot of Judiciary Committee oversight to say that he does.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Sen. Leahy, what’s your game plan now, the Democrats’ game plan? The Republicans have a 55-seat majority in the Senate. Are you trying to stop this nomination? Do you think you can get Republicans to go along with you?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: No, this is not lifetime appointment. This is for the term of the president. We’ll have a real debate on the floor. Sen. Specter is a Republican. He has been very fair in the way he has had the hearings go forward. Everybody has had a chance to speak, will have a chance to speak on the floor.

And then everybody will vote; we’ll vote how we see. I suspect with a Republican majority, Judge Gonzales will be confirmed. I hope, as he said to me when I talked with him prior to the vote, he said he hopes he could prove me wrong. I hope for the sake of the country he does.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Margaret, there’s a very heavy overhang of partisan politics, which we all understand very well. We are here in the capital, and it’s very, very pervasive. And you saw it with comments about Dr. Condoleezza Rice yesterday.

And I regretted the party line vote. I’ve worked very hard, and Sen. Leahy had a different view which evolved and some of the others did too, but the partisan politics is a very heavy overhang, and regrettably, we are going to see too many of these party line votes.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, and regrettably we have to end it. Thank you both very much.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Thank you, Margaret. Nice being with you.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Thank you. Good to be with you, Margaret.