By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer and washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Attorney general nominee Michael B. Mukasey said yesterday that he would chart an independent path for the Justice Department after the tumultuous tenure of Alberto R. Gonzales, testifying that he would not be afraid to disagree with the president and would resign rather than implement policies that he believed violated the Constitution.
Mukasey, appearing for the first day of hearings before a generally friendly Senate Judiciary Committee, also said the president cannot use his powers as commander in chief to "override" prohibitions against using torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading conduct in the interrogation of prisoners.
"Are you prepared to resign if the president were to violate your advice and in your view violate the Constitution?" asked Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Mukasey responded: "That would present me with a difficult but not a complex problem. I could either try to talk him out of it or leave."
These and other strongly worded remarks reflected the former federal judge and prosecutor's desire to position himself as an independent legal thinker who, unlike Gonzales, has no long-standing ties to the current White House. "I'm not a bashful person, and I'm not going to become a bashful person if I'm confirmed," Mukasey said late in the day.
But Mukasey also declined to directly answer some questions related to controversial surveillance, detention and interrogation issues, and he suggested that in some policy areas his views might differ little from those of his predecessor.
During a sparring session with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), for example, Mukasey declined to say whether the president could order a violation of federal surveillance law, as Democratic lawmakers have alleged the Bush administration did when it authorized a warrantless wiretapping program after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Mukasey said he could not provide an informed analysis without being briefed on the classified program but noted that some lawyers think the law does not entirely limit the president. "I find your equivocation here somewhat troubling," Feingold responded.
Mukasey also expressed conservative views on social issues as divergent as obscenity and immigration, saying he would consider more robust prosecution of those caught being in the country illegally.
Most of the committee's Democrats, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), nonetheless repeated earlier predictions that Mukasey will be confirmed easily and with strong bipartisan support. "I'm encouraged by the answers," Leahy told reporters.
Another round of questioning is scheduled for this morning to explore Mukasey's views on torture and the use of executive-privilege claims, Leahy said. Yesterday's session was interrupted for several hours by a congressional ceremony for the Dalai Lama.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had recommended that the White House nominate Mukasey, said Mukasey needs to rescue the Justice Department from its "greatest crisis since Watergate."
Much of the praise for Mukasey was accompanied by barely disguised swipes at Gonzales. "I think it's time for a steady hand, for a professional," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). Schumer was more critical, saying Gonzales "was not much more than a potted plant" as attorney general.
Gonzales, a longtime friend and confidant of President Bush, resigned in August amid allegations that he bowed to White House demands in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys and on controversial national security policies, and then misrepresented his role in testimony on Capitol Hill.
Gonzales, who has hired a private defense attorney, is under investigation by the Justice Department for allegedly lying to Congress and improperly trying to influence a congressional witness.
Democrats had earlier threatened to hold up the Mukasey hearings until they received more documents from the White House related to congressional investigations of the prosecutor firings and other issues. Those demands were put on hold, but Democrats say they will not abandon their probes.
Mukasey avoided a question about whether he would allow a U.S. attorney to pursue contempt charges against the White House if it refused to hand over the documents at issue, as Justice Department procedures provide.
Mukasey, 66, was calm and soft-spoken during much of his testimony, witnessed in the hearing room by family members and friends, including former FBI director Louis J. Freeh. Leahy and other lawmakers described Mukasey as candid and direct compared with Gonzales, who was widely accused of giving vague and evasive testimony.
When questioned about a Justice Department legal opinion issued early in the Bush administration, and since rescinded, that narrowly defined the acts that constitute torture, Mukasey replied differently than Gonzales had at his own confirmation hearing in early 2005.
Although Gonzales had repudiated that document, he repeatedly declined to directly answer questions about the limits of executive branch legal authority to undertake harsh interrogation methods that could be used on terrorism suspects. Mukasey said flatly that the president's commander-in-chief powers do not give him the authority to order torture or cruel treatment, which are prohibited by U.S. laws and international treaties.
At the same time, Mukasey essentially agreed with Gonzales's contention that a president can find a law unconstitutional.
While Gonzales had strongly defended the detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Mukasey called it a "black eye" for the United States because "we are detaining people apparently without end." He also suggested that it would be difficult to close Guantanamo Bay soon and defended an earlier comment that prisoners there were treated better than many U.S. citizens.
Under questioning from Leahy, Mukasey promised to recuse himself from any investigations that might touch on the GOP presidential campaign of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a longtime friend and political ally. Mukasey also vowed to limit contact between Justice Department officials and "political figures," and to discourage bringing charges close to an election.
In response to questions about rising crime rates, Mukasey said he would consider reallocating resources for anti-gang programs and other efforts. The Justice Department has diverted funds and personnel from crime-fighting to focus on counterterrorism and immigration cases, shortchanging anti-gang and anti-crime efforts.
"We can't turn our society into something not worth preserving in order to preserve it," he said.