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Mukasey Losing Democrats' Backing

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"We asked Judge Mukasey a simple and straightforward question: Is waterboarding illegal?" Durbin said. "While this question has been answered clearly by many others . . . Judge Mukasey spent four pages responding and still didn't provide an answer."

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The committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), has also demanded answers from Mukasey about waterboarding and other issues. Other Republicans have supported the White House's position that Mukasey had no connection to or knowledge of waterboarding and should not have to answer questions about it.

Nine Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee yesterday issued a news release urging the Senate to "stop playing politics with the Justice Department."

Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Senate Judiciary Committee member and military lawyer who has frequently criticized the administration's interrogation policies, said he was heartened by Mukasey's letter, including his view that the Detainee Treatment Act, passed by Congress last year, bars waterboarding in military interrogations. The act does not cover CIA interrogations.

"The letter shows that he understands mainstream legal reasoning. There's nothing off base here," Graham said in an interview.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Mukasey's response was "very thorough" but was necessarily limited by his lack of a security clearance. "I think it gives a clear path to how he would tackle this particular question and questions like it," Fratto said. "It's what you would want to see as an attorney general."

Waterboarding generally involves strapping a prisoner to a board, covering his face or mouth with a cloth, and pouring water over his face to create the sensation of drowning, human rights groups say. The practice dates at least to the Spanish Inquisition and has been prosecuted as torture in U.S. military courts since the Spanish-American War. The State Department has condemned its use in other countries.

Officials have said the Bush administration authorized the use of waterboarding on at least three prisoners kept in secret detention by the CIA after the Justice Department said it was legal, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. The practice was halted in 2005, sources have said.

Caroline Fredrickson, Washington legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Mukasey does not need a classified briefing to answer the question. "He seems like he's just an artful hairsplitter," Fredrickson said.

Washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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