WASHINGTON – The White House defended Homeland Security Secretary designee Michael Chertoff (search) on Tuesday, saying the former Justice Department official did not advise the CIA (search) on using specific torture techniques on terror suspects.
Chertoff, who goes before lawmakers Wednesday for confirmation hearings, didn't approve any interrogation techniques, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. Chertoff simply told intelligence officials that interrogators should know the line between which techniques they are allowed to use and which they aren't and "not get close to that line," McClellan said.
"Any assertion that he approved or pre-authorized or otherwise approved the use of certain techniques is simply false," McClellan said. "That wouldn't have been appropriate for him to do as head of the criminal division."
The Justice Department's office of legal counsel — not the criminal division — would have been responsible for interpreting the law, McClellan said.
Chertoff is expected to win confirmation easily following his Wednesday hearing, although Democrats said they plan to question him about his role in advising the CIA about torture standards.
Meeting with Republican and Democratic staff members Monday, Chertoff said any legal advice he gave the CIA was broad and generalized — and merely from the viewpoint of "what a prosecutor would look for," one aide said.
The Capitol Hill meeting, which lasted several hours, was described as cordial. Several aides who spoke on condition on anonymity said Chertoff grew slightly exasperated after repeated questioning over whether he had any role in approving techniques that critics said violated the Geneva Conventions prohibiting violence, torture and humiliating treatment.
Chertoff is a former federal prosecutor who is now a federal appeals court judge in Newark. He was chief of the Justice Department's criminal division when he was asked for guidance on whether CIA agents could be charged for using specific interrogatory techniques on terror suspects. Chertoff repeatedly told aides he gave only basic and generalized advice as "how a prosecutor would approach the statute."
"He said that's something he said consistently to anyone and everyone that's asked," said an aide who attended the meeting.
The meeting came as the American Civil Liberties Union (search) urged lawmakers to press Chertoff during the Wednesday hearing in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the extent he helped craft and supported several other controversial anti-terror policies.
Although the group said Chertoff "has an accomplished record as a jurist and attorney," it charged him with supporting "national security policies that push, or breach, the outer limits of what is permissible under the Bill of Rights."
The ACLU specifically homed in on policies allowing the detention of hundreds of Arab and Muslim men for minor immigration violations during the 9/11 investigations, and on the USA Patriot Act (search), which gives the government broad surveillance and law enforcement powers in terror cases.
It questioned how Chertoff defined torture from the bench when he denied an asylum appeal by a Bangladeshi man who was beaten while in police custody abroad because of his political beliefs.
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy, noting Chertoff's prosecution of racial profiling cases in New Jersey, said Monday he "has a strong record in protecting civil liberties."