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U.S. Attorney General Nominee Alberto Gonzales Faces Tough Senate Questions

January 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: The man President Bush has tapped to be the nation’s next Attorney General is a longtime friend and confidant of the president’s, not someone widely recognized in public circles.

But as White House counsel, it was Alberto Gonzales who helped formulate the administration’s policy for interrogating prisoners captured in the president’s war on terror.

Worldwide criticism of that policy erupted after graphic photos were released showing the humiliation of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib Prison. Several U.S. Military and civilian personnel face criminal charges as a result.

And so at today’s hearing, the questions of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, and almost every other senator who followed, focused heavily on the Gonzales opinions on torture.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Do you approve of torture?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Absolutely not, Senator.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Do you condemn the interrogators’… you already answered this in part at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but again for the record, do you condemn the interrogators’ techniques at Abu Ghraib shown on the widely publicized photographs?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Let me say, Senator, that as a human being I am sickened and outraged by those photos.

KWAME HOLMAN: Gonzales is the son of migrant workers who never finished elementary school. He went on to graduate from Rice University and Harvard Law School, practiced law in Houston before joining then-Gov. Bush’s staff as general counsel.

He was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court, but later resigned to join the president in Washington as his legal counsel. It was in that role in January 2002, that Gonzales wrote a memo to the president suggesting parts of the Geneva Convention that protect prisoners of war from torture were “obsolete” or “quaint,” and did not apply to al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners.

The president agreed, and one month later signed an order declaring he had the authority to bypass the Geneva Accords. This morning, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy pushed Gonzales on the matter and questioned an opinion Gonzales subsequently requested from the Justice Department on what would be considered a violation of torture restrictions as outlined by the Congress.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: It’s a fairly lengthy memo, but it’s addressed a memorandum for Alberto Gonzales, counsel to the president.

And it says for an act to violate the torture statute, it must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death. In August 2002, did you agree with that conclusion?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, in connection with that opinion, I did my job as counsel to the president to ask the question.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I just want to know: Did you agree… I mean, we could spend an hour with that answer, but I’m trying to keep it very simple. Did you agree with that interpretation of the torture statute back in August 2002?

ALBERTO GONZALES: If I may, sir, let me try to… I will try to… I’m going to give you a very quick answer, but I’d like to put a little bit of context. There obviously… we were interpreting a statute that had never been reviewed in the courts, a statute drafted by Congress.

We were trying to… interpretation of a standard by Congress — there was discussion between the White House and the Department of Justice as well as other agencies about what does this statute mean. It was very, very difficult.

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. Ultimately it is the responsibility of the department to tell us what the law means, Senator.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Then do you agree today that for an act to violate the torture statute, it must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death?

ALBERTO GONZALES: I do not, sir. That does not represent the position of the executive branch. As you know…


SPOKESMAN: Well, let him finish his answer.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: But it was the position in 2002.

SPOKESMAN: Wait a minute, Sen. Leahy. Let him finish his answer.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, what you’re asking the counsel to do is to interject himself and direct the Department of Justice, who is supposed to be free of any kind of political influence in reaching a legal interpretation of a law passed by Congress.

I certainly give my views. There was, of course, conversation and a give-and-take discussion about what does the law mean.

But ultimately, ultimately by statute the Department of Justice is charged by Congress to provide legal advice on behalf of the president. We asked the question. That memo represented the position of the executive branch at the time it was issued.

KWAME HOLMAN: Utah Republican Orrin Hatch then entered the fray.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, isn’t it also true that the president’s Feb.7, 2002 memorandum, which is entitled “Humane Treatment of al-Qaida and Taliban Detainees,” also requires American forces to treat all detainees humanely, regardless of whether the Geneva Conventions apply? Isn’t that true?

ALBERTO GONZALES: That is correct. The president gave a directive to the military that despite the fact that Geneva may not apply with respect to the conflict and the war on terrorism, it is that everyone should be treated humanely.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: And that was more than two years ago.

ALBERTO GONZALES: That is correct.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Am I correct in my understanding that at no time did the president authorize the use of torture against detainees, regardless of any of the legal memoranda produced by various entities of the U.S. Government, including the August 2002 Department of Justice memo, the so-called “Bibby Memo?”

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, the position of the president on torture is very, very clear, and there’s a clear record of this. He does not believe in torture, condone torture, has never ordered torture. And anyone engaged in conduct that constitutes torture is going to be held accountable.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy argued that was never made clear by the president’s policies.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: The president’s directive to act humanely was hollow, it was vague, it allowed for military necessity exception and didn’t even apply to the CIA; didn’t even apply to the CIA. Abuses are still being reported.

And you were warned by Sec. Powell and other top military leaders, that ignoring our long-standing traditions and rules would lead to abuse and undermine of military culture, and that is what has happened.

KWAME HOLMAN: Gonzales rejected any connection between questions he had raised about torture and what later happened at Abu Ghraib.

ALBERTO GONZALES: What I can say is that after this war began against this new kind of threat, this new kind of enemy, we realized that there was a premium on receiving information.

In many ways this war on terror is a war about information. If we have information, we can defeat the enemy. We had captured some really bad people, who we were concerned had information that might prevent the loss of American lives in the future.

Again, it was not my role to direct that we should use certain kinds of methods of receiving information from terrorists. That was a decision made by the operational agencies, and they said we need to try to get this information.

What is lawful, and we looked to the Department of Justice to tell us what would be, in fact, within the law.

KWAME HOLMAN: For the record, the Justice Department, last June, withdrew its 2002 opinion on what constitutes torture.

Today Alberto Gonzales said the president’s position now is best reflected in the opinion issued by the Justice Department just last week, stating that torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international law.