Memo Spat Delays Chertoff Confirmation

A Democratic senator is delaying the nomination of Michael Chertoff as Homeland Security secretary to protest the Justice Department’s refusal to provide a secret FBI memo on terror suspect interrogations.

Chertoff is still expected to win Senate approval when lawmakers vote on his nomination Tuesday. But Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., warned Thursday that the document denial thwarts congressional oversight.

“We should make the point during this nomination that we’re being denied a document that may relate to the nomination itself,” said Levin, a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The memo – and the ensuing delay – is “not necessarily about Chertoff,” Levin said. “It may not be, but we may never know.”

At issue is a heavily edited May 2004 e-mail from FBI agents seeking guidance about questioning terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. Last week, Levin and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., asked the Justice Department for an unedited version of the memo to see if it mentioned or involved Chertoff, who headed the agency’s criminal division from 2001 to 2003.

The Justice Department denied the request, saying the memos contain “information covered by the Privacy Act,” and had nothing to do with Chertoff.

In sharply worded letter Thursday to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Levin and Lieberman warned that denying the information – and the oversight – “sets a dangerous precedent.” Lieberman is expected to vote for Chertoff.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the committee, called the delay “very unfortunate.”

The Senate plans up to eight hours of debate on the nomination before Tuesday’s vote, which would come nearly two weeks after Chertoff’s confirmation hearing.

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© 2005 The Associated Press