updated 2/2/2005 3:51:47 PM ET 2005-02-02T20:51:47

Senate Democrats peppered Homeland Security secretary nominee Michael Chertoff on Wednesday about his tenure as a top Justice Department prosecutor, focusing on whether he had a role in approving cruel and improper interrogation methods used on terror suspects.

Chertoff, now a federal appeals court judge in Newark, maintained he gave federal officials only broad guidance and never addressed the legality of any specific interrogation technique.

Though he could not immediately remember precisely what he had been asked during Justice Department meetings with CIA and other government officials, Chertoff said he always declined to talk about techniques that might be used in “hypothetical” situations.

“My answer was exactly the same: ’I am not in a position to evaluate a set of facts based on a hypothetical circumstance,”’ Chertoff said under pointed questioning from Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., during his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

But he said he ended those conversations by advising: “If you are dealing with something that makes you nervous, you better make sure that you are doing the right thing. And you better check it out and that means doing an honest and diligent examination of what you’re doing and not merely putting your head in the sand or turning a blind eye.”

“To summarize, you would not, then, have given a yes-or-no answer to that question?” Levin asked.

“Correct,” Chertoff said.

Despite the grilling, Chertoff is expected to be easily confirmed as the nation’s second homeland security secretary. Even Levin said after the hearing that he knew of no senator who planned to oppose Chertoff.

Chertoff, 51, who headed the Justice Department’s criminal division from 2001-2003, pledged to balance protecting the nation with preserving civil liberties if confirmed.

“I believe the secretary of Homeland Security will have to be mindful of the need to reconcile the imperatives of security with the preservation of liberty and privacy,” Chertoff said in his prepared statement to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

He highlighted his work as special counsel in the New Jersey legislature in examining racial profiling, and as a private attorney representing poor defendants. He also promised to “respect those with whom you work” — a signal to the 180,000 employees he would lead as the nation’s second Homeland Security secretary.

Chertoff helped manage the government’s response during and immediately after the terror attacks. That work, he said, gave him the “rare experience of managing a critical government organization under the stress of a national emergency.”

Evaluating intelligence and working with the federal agencies that handle it will be a top Chertoff priority, as well as working to firm up security on the state and local levels.

Levin said Chertoff’s reputation was that of a “thoughtful straight-shooter,” but the lawmaker used the word troubling to describe the Justice Department actions during Chertoff’s tenure, including the development of legal theories “circumventing legal prohibitions against torture and inhuman treatment of detainees.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the committee, said, “We knew from the start that ensuring our nation’s security should not come at the cost of our civil liberties,” but added that the attacks required immediate action.

“It is always appropriate to ask that question, but it is also important to remember the atrocities that led us to take action and to remember the threat that continues today,” she said in her prepared statement.

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