IHT : Attorney general nominee repudiates controversial U.S. memo on terror interrogations

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Attorney general nominee repudiates controversial U.S. memo on terror interrogations

By David Stout | October 17, 2007

WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush's nominee for attorney general pledged Wednesday to run the Justice Department in an independent, nonpartisan way, and said the president did not have the authority to allow harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects.

Michael Mukasey, 66, repudiated a 2002 memo by Jay Bybee, who at the time was an assistant attorney general, that said the president has the power to issue orders that violate the Geneva Conventions as well as international and U.S. laws prohibiting torture

"The Bybee memo, to paraphrase a French diplomat, was worse than a sin, it was a mistake. It was unnecessary," Mukasey told the Senate Judiciary Committee under questioning by its chairman, Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

The memo was later disavowed and overridden by an executive order on interrogation of terrorism suspects, which allowed harsh questioning but included a vaguely worded ban on cruel and inhuman treatment.

The nomination of Mukasey has been welcomed by senators from both parties, partly because they believe he is likely to be more independent of the White House than former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was.

"We are parties to a treaty that outlaws torture," Mukasey said. "Torture is unlawful under the laws of this country. The president has said that in an executive order.

"But beyond all of those legal restrictions, we don't torture - not simply because it's against this or that law or against this or that treaty," Mukasey added. "It is not what this country is about. It is not what this country stands for. It's antithetical to everything this country stands for."

From the outset Wednesday, the exchanges between the senators and Mukasey bolstered the impression that his confirmation is all but certain. The committee members said the Justice Department desperately needed an attorney general who will tell the president things he may not want to hear, instead of functioning as an in-house counsel.

Mukasey said that, if he found himself at odds with the president on a fundamental legal or ethical issue, "I would try to talk him out of it, or leave."

As for any notion that politics should intrude into the administration of justice - a situation that many administration critics say existed under Gonzales - Mukasey, a former federal judge, said that "partisan politics plays no part in either the bringing of charges or the timing of charges."

Mukasey has signaled to senators that he is likely to impose new rules to protect the Justice Department from future complaints of political meddling. Gonzales left office last month after criticism that he fired several U.S. attorneys last year for political reasons.

Under questioning by Leahy, Mukasey promised to bar all but the top Justice employees from taking calls or making calls "to political figures to talk about cases," a problem under Gonzales.

"Partisan politics plays no part in either the bringing of charges or the timing of charges," Mukasey said.

After meeting with Mukasey on Tuesday, Leahy said he expected Mukasey to be confirmed. "I want him to succeed," Leahy said.

Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, also predicted easy confirmation for Mukasey.

"I don't know of a single Democrat inclined not to support him," Schumer said.

Democrats made clear in advance that they would question Mukasey about whether he supported the administration's antiterrorism policies, especially its use of harsh interrogation techniques for terrorist suspects and its domestic eavesdropping program.

In his court rulings and other writings, Mukasey has suggested that he endorses the administration's views on its wide-ranging authority in battling terrorist threats.

The nominee pledged to recuse himself in any matters involving Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Republican candidate for president, who has been a close friend. Federal prosecutors have been weighing corruption charges against Bernard Kerik, who was Giuliani's police commissioner.

In a letter to Mukasey on Oct. 2, Leahy said Mukasey would be asked about a variety of legal issues that some senators have said the White House has refused to address in detail.

"Regrettably the White House has chosen not to clear the decisions of past concerns and not to produce the information and material it should have and could have about the ongoing scandals that have shaken the Department of Justice and led to the exodus of its former leadership," Leahy wrote. "Those matters now encumber your nomination and, if confirmed, your tenure."

Philip Shenon and David Johnston contributed reporting.