WASHINGTON – After a long day and several rounds of questioning, Alberto Gonzales (search) on Thursday may have said all he could to convince Senate lawmakers that the Bush administration has never condoned the use of torture and, if confirmed as the nation's next attorney general, he would not approve 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 appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a confirmation hearing that alternated between tough questioning and open declarations of affection for the nominee. Not all of the reactions came from the expected sides of the aisle.
"Not that it is relevant, but I like you. I like you. You are the real deal," Democratic Sen. Joe Biden (search) of Delaware told Gonzales. "I don't know anybody who's announced they're against your being the next attorney general. Even those who have doubts about you say you're going to be confirmed."
Gonzales' confirmation would make him the 80th attorney general and the first Hispanic to hold the job of the nation's top law enforcer.
Nonetheless, he was required to sweat a bit over his earlier memos that helped define much of the White House's policies on post-Sept. 11 terrorism prosecutions. Some of those memos, which suggested that President Bush can sidestep international rules in the name of national security, were hotly protested because they were believed to suggest that some U.S. prisoners would not be subject to rules of the 1949 Geneva Conventions (search), the international treaty that prohibits signatory nations from torturing or demeaning international detainees.
One of those memos, written in January 2002, argued that the War on Terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions," as well as those of other torture documents.
At the hearing, Gonzales repeated the argument that terror suspects — like those held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after being captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan — are not soldiers and so are not covered by the Geneva treaty. But, he said the conventions clearly applied to prisoners in Iraq.
"Contrary to reports, I consider the Geneva Conventions neither obsolete nor quaint," he said. "We must be committed to preserving civil rights and civil liberties," he said.
Earlier this week, Gonzales pledged to abide by treaty provisions while trying to extract information from alleged Al Qaeda members and other terrorists. Asked directly by Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., whether he condoned torture, Gonzales said no.
Partisan Perspectives Persist
Gonzales repeatedly clarified that even in circumstances where the Geneva Conventions don't apply, the president had directed U.S. military to treat every detainee humanely and at no time authorized the use of torture.
Still, Democrats took the opportunity to criticize several aspects of Bush's policies regarding suspects in the War on Terror
"You have to ask, 'Where's the accountability and responsibility?'" said the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy, in his opening statement. He 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 Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the approval to categorize "ghost detainees" who could then be hidden from the International Committee of the Red Cross (search) and unexplained instances in which the U.S. government delivered prisoners to other countries to be tortured as examples.
"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," said Leahy.
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.
One Republican also joined Democrats in charging that Gonzales' memos and the administration's aggressive interrogation and detention policies contributed to abuses like those at Abu Ghraib (search) prison in Iraq and ultimately damaged U.S. moral standing as a champion of human rights.
"I think we have dramatically undermined the war effort by getting on a slippery slope in terms of playing cute with the law," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
But 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.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Bush's top lawyer is successfully carrying out his job and making the nation more secure, 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," Cornyn said, adding that many of the criticisms of Gonzales are "outright lies."
Independence and Accountability
Despite Biden's personal affinity for Gonzales, he warned him against demurring from questions about his personal opinion on current abuse cases, saying as attorney general, he is no longer the president's counsel, but would be representing the nation.
"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 said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (search), 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.
Gonzales was also asked a series of questions on other terrorism issues as well as rules about 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."
FOX News' Carl Cameron and Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.