Mukasey Losing Democrats' Backing

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Attorney general nominee Michael B. Mukasey told Senate Democrats yesterday that a kind of simulated drowning known as waterboarding is "repugnant to me," but he said he does not know whether the interrogation tactic violates U.S. laws against torture.

Mukasey's uncertainty about the method's legality has raised new questions about the success of his nomination. It seemed a sure thing just two weeks ago, as Democrats joined Republicans in predicting his easy confirmation to succeed the embattled Alberto R. Gonzales.

Mukasey raised alarms among Democrats and human rights groups during testimony on Oct. 18. He declined to say whether waterboarding is torture, prompting key Democrats to press the point and say their vote will hinge on his answer to that question.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has so far refused to schedule a vote on Mukasey's nomination. All four Democratic senators running for president said before the release of Mukasey's letter yesterday evening that they will vote against him because of his handling of the waterboarding issue.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the Democratic front-runner, said yesterday that "we cannot send a signal that the next attorney general in any way condones torture or believes that the president is unconstrained by law." Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), a member of the Judiciary panel, issued similar statements.

By seizing on the waterboarding issue, Democrats hope to force Mukasey to disavow a controversial technique that top Bush administration officials have deemed legal. If he were to say the tactic is illegal, he would effectively deem earlier Justice Department opinions unlawful.

In a four-page letter to the Judiciary Committee, Mukasey walked a tightrope by outlining the laws and treaties forbidding torture and other cruel treatment, and explaining the legal analysis he would undertake of "coercive" techniques, while generally declining to render judgments.

Mukasey said that techniques described as waterboarding by lawmakers "seem over the line or, on a personal basis, repugnant to me, and would probably seem the same to many Americans." But, he continued, "hypotheticals are different from real life, and in any legal opinion the actual facts and circumstances are critical."

Mukasey also said he is reluctant to offer opinions on interrogation techniques because he does not want to place U.S. officials "in personal legal jeopardy" and is concerned that such remarks might "provide our enemies with a window into the limits or contours of any interrogation program." His arguments are similar to those advanced by the Bush administration in its refusal to discuss waterboarding or other interrogation techniques.

Reiterating a promise made during his testimony, Mukasey said that he "will not hesitate" to "rescind or correct any legal opinion of the Department of Justice that supports" illegal interrogation techniques. Since September 2001, the CIA has repeatedly used harsh methods that the Justice Department ruled were legal but that independent experts have said violate domestic and international law.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the Judiciary panel's chairman, reacted with blunt dissatisfaction, saying in a statement yesterday that he will continue to delay any vote on Mukasey until the nominee answers more questions from lawmakers. "I remain very concerned that Judge Mukasey finds himself unable to state unequivocally that waterboarding is illegal and below the standards and values of the United States," he said.

But Leahy, who said last week that "my vote would depend on him answering that question," stopped short of declaring he will oppose the nomination. Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), also issued a statement criticizing Mukasey but did not say whether he would vote no.

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