Gonzales Faces Grilling Over Torture Memos

White House counsel Alberto Gonzales will be grilled over what critics call his “appalling” role in policies blamed for abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay, when Senate hearings begin on Thursday over his nomination to be U.S. Attorney General.

Opponents acknowledge they are unlikely to defeat Gonzales, a long-time adviser to President Bush, who has praised Gonzales for a “sharp intellect and sound judgment” that helped shape U.S. counterterrorism policies.

But critics hope the hearings will make Gonzales answer for his White House advice that parts of the Geneva Conventions on prisoner treatment were “obsolete.”

Senators will also want him to shed light on any policy link to practices that shocked the world: the sexual humiliation of Iraqi detainees and alleged abuses at a prison for foreign terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“Gonzales’ record is appalling,” the anti-war group Win Without War said on the eve of the hearings. “His radical legal reasoning opened the door to the terrible abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.”

Some Senate Democrats have also ripped into his record, and a coalition of human rights groups launched an anti-torture campaign to coincide with the hearings.

Bush has said that he never ordered torture.

Gonzales, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, was chosen in November to replace John Ashcroft, who was widely criticized over his implementation of U.S. anti-terror legislation viewed by many as damaging to civil liberties.

Gonzalez would be the first Hispanic-American to serve as the top U.S. law enforcement official — furthering a Republican goal of wooing Hispanic voters. He also is considered a potential Bush choice to fill any U.S. Supreme Court vacancy.

“The result is not in doubt. He will be confirmed overwhelmingly,” said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who will introduce Gonzales at the confirmation hearing, which begins at 9:30 a.m.

Cornyn dismissed Gonzales’ opponents as “people frustrated by the results of the Nov. 2 elections and their continued attempts to attack the president or policies — that from a legal standpoint — are mainstream and correct.”

“This issue is not about politics,” said an aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. “It’s about American values and the rule of law.”

Among the many memos Gonzales will be questioned about is one he wrote to Bush in January 2002. In it, he described parts of the Geneva Conventions as “obsolete” or “quaint” and said they did not apply to al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.

Gonzales will promise in his opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee that if confirmed he will abide by anti-torture treaties.

With Democrats eager to hear how the administration came up with such widely denounced policies on prisoner treatment, Gonzales will say at the hearing that the United States faced crucial decisions after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on how to apply treaties and U.S. law in a war on terrorism.

Bush has made clear he would defend the country “always in a manner consistent with our nation’s values and applicable law, including our treaty obligations,” Gonzales says in the statement. “I pledge, that if confirmed as attorney general, I will abide by those commitments.”

The Justice Department last week released a new memo stepping back from a much-criticized 2002 document that said only the most severe types of torture were not permissible under U.S. law and international agreements.