Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) denied on Tuesday that President Bush had issued orders that would have allowed violations of U.S. laws or treaties that ban torture of prisoners.
He refused, however, to make public Justice Department memos that contended a wartime president was not bound by the anti-torture principles.
During a testy, three-hour appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ashcroft repeatedly insisted that the Bush administration does not condone torture, even of Al Qaeda terrorist suspects. He said his department would investigate vigorously anyone accused of it who is outside military jurisdiction.
"This administration rejects torture," Ashcroft said. Later, he added: "I don't think it's productive, let alone justified."
Still, the attorney general refused to give the committee copies of department memos written in 2002 that Democratic senators said could have laid legal groundwork for abuses that occurred at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison (search) and elsewhere in the war on terror.
"I do believe the president has the right to have legal advice from his attorney general and not have that revealed to the whole world," said Ashcroft. Yet the administration was not invoking executive privilege claims to protect the documents, he said.
One of the memos, cited in a March 2003 Pentagon policy paper, stated that the president's broad wartime national security authority may override anti-torture laws and treaties, including the Geneva Conventions, in certain circumstances.
Waving photos of abused prisoners in Iraq, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said such memos could lead to interpretations by military personnel or interrogators that laws and agreements that forbid torture were no longer in effect.
"We know when we have these kinds of orders what happens: we get the stress test, we get the use of dogs, we get the forced nakedness that we've all seen, and we get the hooding," Kennedy said.
Ashcroft said, however, that the Bush administration has done nothing that "has directly resulted in the kind of atrocity which were cited. That is false."
Several Democrats said Ashcroft was coming perilously close to contempt of Congress by refusing to provide the memos, many of which have been subjects of published news stories. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., scolded Ashcroft by saying "sometimes you're your own worst enemy" by invoking secrecy.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., his voice booming, suggested that American military personnel could be in greater danger of torture because of the U.S. mistreatment.
"That's why we have these treaties. So when Americans are captured, they are not tortured. That's the reason, in case anybody forgets it," said Biden, noting that his son, Beau, is in training for the Delaware National Guard's judge advocate general office.
Glaring back at the committee, Ashcroft responded that his son, Andy, recently returned from duty in the Persian Gulf aboard a Navy destroyer, the USS McFaul, and is scheduled to return there soon.
"Well, as a person whose son is in the military now on active duty and has been in the Gulf within the last several months, I'm aware of those considerations," he said.
The Justice Department has several cases of prisoner abuse under investigation that were referred for prosecution by the Defense Department and the CIA, he said.
Ashcroft also told the committee that the Bush administration had determined that Al Qaeda operatives were not covered by the Geneva Conventions because they did not belong to governments that had signed the agreements and did not meet other requirements, such as wearing of recognizable military uniforms.
"The Geneva Convention does not apply everywhere, by its own terms," he said.
Nonetheless, Ashcroft said, Bush issued a directive requiring that Taliban and Al Qaeda captives be treated under the same principles as other soldiers. Most of those prisoners are held on a U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, and testimony at hearings on the Abu Ghraib abuses said Bush had ordered that their treatment be "consistent with" the Geneva principles.
Some Republican senators rallied to the administration's defense Tuesday on the Justice Department memos, arguing that their release could lead to misinterpretation about U.S. policy regarding torture. Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., said terrorists could train to resist certain interrogation techniques if documents detailing them were made public.
"It's not useful to give them a blueprint on how we go about interrogating them," Kyl said.
Ashcroft also was subjected to criticism about the broader war on terror, especially by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Leahy drew attention to a June 3 story by The Associated Press that detailed how the Justice Department overruled prosecutors and deported rather than filed criminal charges against Nabil al-Marabh, once one of the FBI's most-wanted terrorist suspects.
"This is one of the most disturbing and, frankly, stunning revelations to emerge from the home front in the war on terrorism," Leahy said.
Ashcroft did not directly respond but said much progress had been made in the war on terror, even though the threat from Al Qaeda remains high.