updated 1/6/2005 8:23:24 PM ET 2005-01-07T01:23:24

Under scorching criticism from senators, President Bush’s nominee for attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, condemned torture as an interrogation tactic Thursday and promised to prosecute abusers of terrorist suspects. He also disclosed that the White House was looking at trying to change the Geneva Convention that protects prisoner rights.

Pressed by both Democratic and Republican senators at his confirmation hearing, Gonzales defended his advice as Bush’s White House counsel that al-Qaida and other terrorist suspects were not entitled to the protections of the treaty. But he said there was more to the issue than that.

“Torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration,” Gonzales told senators on the Judiciary Committee. “I will ensure the Department of Justice aggressively pursues those responsible for such abhorrent actions.”

New look at Geneva Convention
Gonzales promised that as attorney general he would abide by the 1949 Geneva treaty but also said the White House was looking at the possibility of seeking revisions.

“Now, I’m not suggesting that the principles, the basic treatment of human beings, should be revisited,” Gonzales said. “But there has been some very preliminary discussion: Is this something that we ought to look at?”

The discussions have not gone far, Gonzales said. “It’s not been a systematic project or effort to look at this question,” he said. “But some people I deal with, the lawyers, indicate maybe this is something we should look at.”

Democrats at Gonzales’ hearing repeatedly criticized Bush administration policies on aggressive interrogation of terrorism suspects, and Republicans sometimes joined in, too.

Despite the criticism, Gonzales is expected to win confirmation when the Senate returns after Bush’s inauguration. He would be the nation’s first Hispanic attorney general.

Democrats said it was Gonzales’ January 2002 memo as White House counsel that led to the stripping, mocking and threatening of suspects with dogs. He had argued in his memo that the war on terrorism “renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.”

Gonzales, as White House counsel, was at the center of decisions about “the legality of detention and interrogation methods that have been seen as tantamount to torture,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Added Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.: The “legal positions that you have supported have been used by the administration, the military and the CIA to justify torture and Geneva Convention violations by military and civilian personnel.”

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Tough questioning
Gonzales, wearing a U.S. flag pin on his lapel, sat alone at the witness table, family members seated behind him in the crowded hearing room. Senators addressed him respectfully as “Judge” — Gonzales is a former Texas Supreme Court justice — but pressed him repeatedly on administration policies.

He refused to back away from his legal opinion to Bush that terrorists did not deserve treatment under the Geneva Convention if captured by Americans overseas.

Video: Pledge to uphold treaties

“My judgment was ... that it would not apply to al-Qaida — they weren’t a signatory to the convention,” he said.

He denied that any of the memos he wrote or reviewed in the White House had anything to do with the abuses.

“Would you not concede that your decision and the decision of the president to call into question the definition of torture, the need to comply with the Geneva Convention at least opened up a permissive environment of conduct?” asked Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s no. 2 Democrat.

Saying he was sickened and outraged by photos of abuses at Abu Ghraib, Gonzales described the U.S. troops in them as “people who were morally bankrupt having fun.” Other abuses of foreign detainees probably were caused because “there wasn’t adequate training; there wasn’t adequate supervision.”

“I respectfully disagree that there was some kind of permissive environment,” he said.

Gonzales’ response to some questions Thursday seemed to contradict his description of the Geneva Convention in his January 2002 memo.

“I consider the Geneva Convention neither obsolete or quaint,” he said at the hearing, promising to ensure U.S. compliance “with all of its legal obligations in fighting the war on terror.”

Gonzales declined to give a legal opinion on the prisoner abuse, suggesting that he did not want to prejudice a possible criminal case as the attorney general nominee. That led to a 10-minute lecture from Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., on Democrats’ long-standing complaints about Bush nominees’ not directly answering their questions.

“We’re looking for candor, old buddy,” Biden said. “I love you, but you’re not very candid so far.”

Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina joined in on some of the criticism, saying the administration “dramatically undermined the war effort” by “getting cute with the law.”

“I think you weaken yourself as a nation when you try to play cute and become more like your enemy instead of like who you want to be,” he said.

Gonzales objected to Graham’s characterizations, noting the beheadings of Americans by terrorists. “We are nothing like our enemies, Senator,” Gonzales said.

“But we’re not like who we want to be and who we have been, and that’s the point I’m trying to make,” Graham retorted. “When you start looking at torture statutes and you look at ways around the spirit of the law, you’re losing the moral high ground. ... I do believe that we’ve lost our way.”

Gonzales also:

  • Supported the use of the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism law that was enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington. “I believe that in part because of the Patriot Act there has not been a domestic attack on United States soil since 9/11,” he said.
  • Sidestepped questions on whether it was legal for Senate Democrats to filibuster Bush’s judicial nominations last year. Senate Republicans have threatened to change the chamber’s rules to ban the maneuver if it happens this year.
  • Promised that his friendship with Bush would not affect him as attorney general. “I will no longer represent only the White House,” he said. “I will represent the United States of America and its people. I understand the difference between the two roles.”
  • Said he would defend in court the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, in which Congress said states did not have to recognize same-sex marriages.
  • Brushed off talk that he might be a nominee for the Supreme Court if a vacancy occurred. “Let me make it clear: I am not a candidate for the Supreme Court,” he said.

That brought a quick response from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

“Just in case it happens, one standard is different than the other,” Schumer said, suggesting that Democrats’ support for Gonzales’ nomination as attorney general would not guarantee backing if Bush later nominated him for the court.

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