President Bush, seeking to salvage the nomination of Michael Mukasey as attorney general, on Thursday defended the former judge's refusal to say whether he considers waterboarding as illegal torture.
Bush said it was unfair to ask Mukasey about interrogation techniques on which he has not been briefed. "He doesn't know whether we use that technique or not," the president told a group of reporters invited into the Oval Office.
Further, Bush said, "It doesn't make any sense to tell the enemy whether we use those techniques or not."
Prospects for Mukasey's confirmation have dimmed because of his refusal to equate waterboarding with torture. Three of the 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have said they will vote against him in the first test of his nomination next week.
Bush called on the Senate to promptly approve Mukasey, saying the nation needs to have an attorney general in place to help wage the war on terror.
"Judge Mukasey is not being treated fairly," the president said. Without saying whether interrogators use waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, Bush said that "the American people must know that whatever techniques we use are within the law."
Asked whether he considers waterboarding legal, Bush replied, "I'm not going to talk about techniques. There's an enemy out there."
Mukasey's confirmation seemed assured two weeks ago but now increasingly is in doubt.
Freshman Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said Wednesday he would oppose the nomination. Mukasey's refusal to say that waterboarding is "unconditionally wrong" would leave open the possibility that U.S. agencies could cross a moral and legal line and use it on detainees, Whitehouse said.
"If we allow the president of the United States to prevent or to forbid a would-be attorney general of the United States ... from recognizing that bright line, we will have turned down that dark stairway," Whitehouse said. "I cannot stand for that. I will oppose this nomination."
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, followed Whitehouse to the floor to add his opposition.
"As good a person as he may be, his response to this question, this basic and fundamental question ... leaves me no alternative but to oppose Judge Mukasey's nomination to be attorney general of the United States," Durbin said.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., announced earlier this week that he would vote no.
Bush spoke about Mukasey's nomination before delivering a speech Thursday afternoon about the war against terrorism. He said he was concerned that some people "have lost sight of the fact that we are at war with extremists and radicals." He said it was important that Congress approve the laws, financing and personnel necessary to combat U.S. enemies.
"The American people must know that whatever techniques we use are within the law," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office. He said Senate's failure to confirm Mukasey promptly was "not good for the country."
A trio of Republican senators tried to mollify all sides Wednesday, asking for a commitment from Mukasey if confirmed.
"We urge you to publicly make clear that waterboarding can never be employed" by any U.S. government agency, wrote Sens. John Warner of Virginia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona. Bush declined to say whether he agreed with the senators' approach.