WASHINGTON – Alberto Gonzales on Thursday said the Bush administration has never condoned the use of torture and, if confirmed as the nation's next attorney general, he would not approve of the practice.
President Bush has made clear that the government will defend Americans from terrorists "in a manner consistent with our nation's values and applicable law, including our treaty obligations," Gonzales said. "I pledge that, if I am confirmed as attorney general, I will abide by those commitments."
Gonzales was facing tough questions Thursday from the Senate Judiciary Committee about his role in the U.S. government's aggressive interrogations of terrorism detainees. A successful confirmation hearing could make Gonzales the first Hispanic to be the top U.S. law enforcer.
Gonzales repeated the argument that terrorists are not soldiers and so are not covered by the Geneva treaty but still, he said, "We must be committed to preserving civil rights and civil liberties."
In light of recent dust-ups over Bush administration policies on just how far interrogators can go in trying to get information about alleged Al Qaeda (search) and other terrorists, Gonzales earlier this week pledged to abide by treaties that ban torture of prisoners.
Supporters of Gonzales, who had a hand in much of the White House's post-Sept. 11 terrorism policies, say Bush's top lawyer is successfully carrying out his job and making the nation more secure in doing so and that the recent uproar over the counsel's policies is an attempt to tarnish his reputation.
"Only in Washington can a good man get raked over the coals for doing his job," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in introducing Gonzales, adding, that neither the president nor Gonzales ever condoned the use of torture. "Al Qaeda never signed the Geneva Conventions (search)," Cornyn added, saying that many of the criticisms of Gonzales are "outright lies."
Democrats want answers concerning a January 2002 memo Gonzales wrote arguing that the war on terrorism "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions," as well as other torture documents.
A month later, Bush signed an order saying he had the authority to bypass the accords "in this or future conflicts."
Bush's order also said the Geneva treaty's references to prisoners of war did not apply to Al Qaeda or "unlawful combatants" from the Taliban.
Gonzales defended his conclusion that the Geneva Convention protections for prisoners of war did not apply to terror suspects, including those being held in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, who were mostly captured in Afghanistan.
"My judgment was...that it would not apply to Al Qaeda — they weren't a signatory to the convention," he said.
But Gonzales said the conventions clearly applied to prisoners in Iraq.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said it hadn't been lost on him that many of the lawmakers grilling Gonzales are the same who have "vilified" current Attorney General John Ashcroft during the past four years.
He continued to have Gonzales clarify that even in circumstances where the Geneva Conventions have not applied, Bush had given a directive to the U.S. military that everyone detained should be treated humanely and at no time did the president authorize the use of torture against detainees.
"The position of the president on torture is very, very clear and there's a clear record on this," Gonzales added.
Dems: 'Where's the Accountability'
In his opening statement Thursday, the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy, said that several defense and justice officials have authorized techniques that are contrary to U.S. military manuals and international law. He cited former CIA Director George Tenet's asking Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld for the approval to categorize "ghost detainees" who could then be hidden from the International Committee of the Red Cross and unexplained instances in which the U.S. government delivered prisoners to other countries to be tortured as examples.
"You have to ask, 'Where's the accountability and responsibility?'" Leahy said. "We're the most powerful nation on Earth ... we're a country that cherishes liberty and human rights, we've been a beacon of hope and freedom to the world ... we can and will defeat [terrorists] without sacrificing our values or stooping to their level."
The Vermont senator added: "I'm very concerned we don't retreat from the high standards [against] torture we've held other countries to in the past."
"Like all of you, I have been deeply troubled and offended at reports of abuse" at Abu Ghraib, Gonzales said, adding that he personally was "sickened" by pictures of U.S. military servicemen and women with Iraqi prisoners in compromising positions.
"The president has made clear that he condemns this conduct and that these activities are inconsistent with his policies," he added. "He's also made clear that America stands against and will not condone torture under any circumstance."
Some Gonzales critics say that decision and his January 2002 memo justifying it helped lead to the torture scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib (search) prison and prisoner abuses in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba.
Last June, the Justice Department withdrew its 2002 memos arguing that the president's wartime authority supersedes laws and treaties governing treatment of prisoners.
Leahy tried to get Gonzales to answer whether he agrees with allowing the commander-in-chief to override torture laws and to immunize from prosecution anyone who commits torture.
"You're asking me to answer a hypothetical that is never going to occur," Gonzales replied.
Gonzales noted that it was Congress who passed the law outlining what interrogation methods are acceptable and that it's the Department of Justice's responsibility to advise the White House on its interpretation of the Constitution and current laws.
John Yoo, who helped write the key memo at Justice's Office of Legal Counsel (search) that critics claimed appeared to condone torture, said before the hearing that Gonzales and top Justice officials did not attempt to influence or interfere with the content, although they were briefed on drafts.
"The idea that the Office of Legal Counsel was providing advice that was dictated, demanded or influenced by the White House, that's just flatly untrue," said Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
But Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said it's "pure malarky" that Gonzales can't answer questions pertaining to current abuse cases just because he's in line to become the next attorney general and it could compromise judgment on the investigation. He said it's Gonzales' duty to give his personal judgment on such issues because, if confirmed, he will be the peoples' lawyer, not the president's.
"This is about the judgment you have exercised and whether or not the next four years, the judgment you're going to give the president" is most appropriate "in this time of dire concern about terror," Biden added.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said his biggest beef with the administration is that it hasn't been forthcoming enough on details about alleged torture cases and that, if confirmed, Gonzales should make sure the administration is more transparent on such issues.
Confirmation Not Questioned
Gonzales likely will also be questioned on other terrorism issues, including the government's detention of Jose Padilla, who has been held for 31 months without being charged as an enemy combatant. Padilla is suspected of plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States.
Other topics that Gonzales probably will have to address include the administration's more restrictive rules on releasing government documents; the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriages; and memos he prepared for then-Gov. Bush about clemency appeals for Texas death row inmates.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush had "full trust" in Gonzales and hoped the Senate would "move forward quickly."
"The (prisoner treatment) policy that the president set — that I think Judge Gonzales was talking about in his opening remarks — is very clear and that is that we adhere to our laws and our treaty obligations," McClellan said.
Even Democrats say they expect Gonzales to be confirmed. Many Republicans think the complaints likely to be aired during Thursday's hearing are more to take jabs at the president's nominee and the Bush administration's policies but are not designed to block his nomination.
"This is a chance really to kind of scuff up the administration on the issue of Abu Ghraib, what took place in the prison there," Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kans., told FOX News on Thursday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.