WASHINGTON -- Alberto Gonzales, under intense questioning yesterday about Bush administration interrogation policies he helped shape as White House counsel, said he would never condone torture and that he was "sickened" by photos of soldiers abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
President Bush's nominee to be attorney general also said he was "committed to preserving civil rights and civil liberties" and would honor the Geneva Conventions. But he defended his advice to Bush that the United States could withhold Geneva Conventions protections, notably their prohibition of coercive interrogations, from Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees captured in the Afghanistan war.
"I am and will remain deeply committed to ensuring that the United States government complies with all of its legal obligations as it fights the war on terror," Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Those obligations include, of course, the Geneva Conventions whenever they apply. . . . Contrary to reports, I consider the Geneva Conventions neither quaint nor obsolete."
The hearing was a rare opportunity for Democrats in the Republican-led Senate to examine the administration's interrogation policies, an issue that erupted last spring when the Abu Ghraib photographs were leaked and was recently reinvigorated by the release of FBI reports written from detention centers in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Bush administration has denied any official policy authorizing torture, blaming the Abu Ghraib abuses on rogue guards and pledging investigations.
Republican senators yesterday largely defended Bush administration policies on detainees and praised Gonzales for his rise from an impoverished childhood to likely becoming the first Hispanic attorney general in US history.
"Only in Washington can a good man get raked over the coals for doing his job," said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who introduced Gonzales. "This must all be a little disorienting for someone who's very life story testifies to the fact that America should always be a place where honesty, diligence, and determination are rewarded, not punished."
Despite their tough questions, no Democratic senator said he planned to vote against Gonzales. Senate Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said a confirmation vote will come soon, perhaps before Bush's Jan. 20 inauguration.
Yesterday was Specter's first hearing as chairman, a position the GOP moderate took despite a bid late last year by social conservatives to block him from the post. Most senators began their remarks by congratulating Specter before turning to Gonzales.
Specter joined Democrats in pressing Gonzales to promise to inform the committee about Justice Department activities and to testify at hearings more often than Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was often criticized on Capitol Hill for resisting oversight. Gonzales said he respected the committee's oversight role.
Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, reminded Gonzales that the attorney general represents the interests of the American people, not just the president. "There is some concern that if the president wants a thing, you're going to go ahead and make it work," Leahy said.
Gonzales said he understood the difference.
"It is very important that there not be this idea or perception that somehow the Department of Justice is going to be politicized," he said. "I'm very sensitive to that."
But most of the day was dominated by discussion of interrogation policies. Democrats devoted most of their time to trying to determine how Gonzales would handle such matters as attorney general, growing at times frustrated as the nominee demurred or said he would get back to them later.
In exchanges with senators, for example, Gonzales tried to avoid answering what he called "hypothetical" questions about whether he believed the president could lawfully authorize the violation of a US law if he determined that it unconstitutionally restricted his authority as commander in chief.
That reasoning was contained in an August 2002 Justice Department memo to Gonzales arguing that Bush could invoke national security to authorize interrogators to inflict severe pain on terrorist suspects, despite treaties and domestic laws forbidding torture or cruel and degrading treatment.
The memo also narrowed the definition of torture to pain equal to that suffered in organ failure or death, and said that a US official who inflicted torture or other outlawed practices to get information that could save American lives could avoid criminal punishment by invoking a "necessity" defense.
The Bush administration last week issued a replacement memo that specifically rejects torture.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, noted that the memo was in place for two years and that language from it was copied into an April 4, 2003, Pentagon report on interrogations that is apparently still in use.
Pressed repeatedly, Gonzales finally said that the Bush administration had no intention of authorizing a violation of a criminal law, but left the door open to advising Bush that he could do so under extraordinary circumstances. "There is a presumption of constitutionality with respect to any statute passed by Congress," he said. "To the extent that there is a decision made to ignore a statute, I consider that a very significant decision."