A divided Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved Alberto Gonzales as U.S. attorney general, rejecting Democratic complaints about his role in formulating administration policies blamed for contributing to the torture of detainees.
On a party-line vote of 10-8, the Republican-led panel sent President Bush’s nomination of Gonzales to become the nation’s highest-ranking lawman to the full Senate for anticipated confirmation as early as next week.
Gonzales, Bush’s White House counsel the past four years, would replace John Ashcroft, who submitted his resignation after Bush was elected to a second term in November. Gonzales would be the first Hispanic to hold the post.
The battle over Gonzales has focused largely on an Aug. 1, 2002, memo he approved that stated only the most severe types of torture were not permissible under U.S. and international agreements. The memo was withdrawn after a public outcry.
Gonzales has also drawn fire for writing in January 2002 that parts of the half-century-old Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war were “obsolete” and “quaint.”
At a Jan. 6 confirmation hearing, Gonzales denounced torture and vowed to abide by international treaties on the treatment of prisoners.
Yet Gonzales prompted further criticism with responses to follow-up written questions, including his belief the United States may technically have the right to hold foreigners indefinitely in secret locations overseas and subject them to abusive treatment.
Gonzales also wrote, however, that any torture by American personnel would be unlawful. “As the president has made clear, the United States will not engage in torture and U.S. personnel are prohibited from doing so,” Gonzales declared.
At a White House news conference on Wednesday, Bush called on the Senate “to promptly act and confirm Judge Al Gonzales.”
Asked about Gonzales’ written response the CIA was not specifically forbidden from abusing detainees overseas, Bush said: “Listen, Al Gonzales reflects our policy, and that is we don’t sanction torture. He will be a great attorney general.”
Senate Republicans described the former Texas Supreme Court justice as a skilled lawyer and an American success story, one who rose from a humble beginning.
Democrats ripped into Gonzales for administration detention policies drafted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Those policies have been blamed for contributing to the abuse of detainees captured in the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“When President Bush announced this nomination, he said that he chose Judge Gonzales because of his ‘sound judgment’ and role in shaping the administration’s policies in the war on terrorism,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.
Yet, Leahy charged, “Judge Gonzales has championed policies that are in fundamental conflict with decades of our laws, sound military practice, international law and human rights.”
Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, complained Gonzales was less than forthcoming to the committee.
“We have a torture problem. The FBI says so. The Red Cross says so,” Kennedy said. “Additional allegations of abuse are being reported on a daily basis. Yet Mr. Gonzales can’t remember any details of how it happened.”
Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union called for the release of additional federal documents on detention policies, and said, “It is time for the Senate to demand that Gonzales and the Bush administration come clean.”