WASHINGTON – Top lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee expect Alberto Gonzales to be confirmed as the nation's next attorney general despite several rounds of tough questioning regarding his role in formulating the nation's policies on detainee treatment.
"The hearings ended on a favorable note for Judge Gonzales," committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told FOX News on Friday. "When Senator [Patrick] Leahy and Senator [Edward] Kennedy were asking him questions about working with him in the future on a variety of issues and that's always — that's always a good sign.
"I think overall, from the Democrats as well as the Republicans, there was a positive feeling that this is a man, the first Hispanic to be attorney general and the only one of seven siblings to go to college," Specter continued, "and he's had a very strong report and Democrats have said that when they have dealt with him as White House counsel, he's been forthcoming, and he had a tough spot yesterday and I think he acquitted himself reasonably well."
Added Alabama Sen. Saxby Chambliss, also a member of the judiciary panel: "Gonzales is going to be confirmed but they're going to take their shots at individuals like Gonzales who have ... high profile issues."
Gonzales 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."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said that while Thursday's hearing was tough, not all the blame for the perceived failures in carrying out the correct detainee policies of the administration is to be pointed at Gonzales.
"We know terrorists can strike anywhere and sometimes the rules have to change — that's not a problem — we're not in a war of the roses where there's a set battlefield," Schumer told FOX News on Friday. "But when you want to change the rules, you don't do it secretively ... these are serious things that have years of vetting and all that — you do it openly."
Schumer, who has consistently said Gonzales has the backing of most Democrats and likely will be confirmed, was one of several lawmakers Thursday who wanted assurances that, if confirmed, Gonzales will preside over a more "open" administration at the Justice Department than the secretive one they claim current Attorney General John Ashcroft has run.
Part of that openness, he said, includes getting more expert opinions when changing the government's policy on controversial issues such as how to interrogate suspected terrorists in U.S. custody.
"The point was, because they hadn't vetted it [some detainee treatment policies], because they didn't look at all the consequences, we ended up getting these situations like Abu Ghraib," Schumer said. However, he added, that he knows there are going to be situations where you can't "pat a guy on the back and say 'please,'" for example, if there's a nuclear bomb about to go off somewhere in the United States and interrogators need information on where it is.
The confirmation hearing 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 the president 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.
"There were some important questions to be asked but I thought that Judge Gonzales responded positively, denounced terrorism, that is not the policy which the administration favors or which he favors, and he pretty clearly repudiated the controversial member memorandum written by the Department of Justice a couple of years ago," Specter told FOX News.
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 Specter whether he condoned torture, Gonzales said no.
"They were trying to get some sort of definition, in black in white, as to what we're going to do, how we're going to treat these people [detainees] and that's impossible," Chambliss told FOX News on Friday.
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?'" Leahy, the committee's ranking Democrat, said 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 the Vermont lawmaker.
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" 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.
Kennedy, the senior Democratic senator from Massachusetts, 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 The Associated Press contributed to this report.