Mukasey Undecided on CIA Tapes Questions

Attorney General Michael Mukasey pauses during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Attorney General Michael Mukasey pauses during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Evan Vucci - AP)
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 11, 2007; 5:45 PM

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Michael Mukasey refused Tuesday to be rushed into deciding whether he considers waterboarding a form of torture, saying simply he understands the "intense interest" in the issue now at the heart of an inquiry into videotaped interrogations of terror suspects that were destroyed by the CIA.

In his news conference, Mukasey relied on his nearly two decades as a federal judge to push back on questions about his thoughts on waterboarding, much as he had done with senators who asked before voting to confirm his nomination on Nov. 8.

Mukasey said he has not yet concluded a review of Justice Department memos to determine whether waterboarding amounts to torture _ which would deem it illegal.

"The 'How close are you?' question used to be asked of me when I was a judge _ 'How soon are you going to decide the case?'" Mukasey said during a news conference that was held to highlight U.S. and European Union law enforcement partnerships. "And invariably the response was, 'If I knew that, I would already have decided it.'"

"It's a process. And one question or issue or letter may lead to another," Mukasey said. "I don't want to say that I'm this close and then find that I'm that close."

He added: "But I recognize the importance of it."

The issue of waterboarding _ a harsh interrogation tactic that causes the sensation of drowning and is banned by the Pentagon _ threatened to derail Senate approval of Mukasey last month. He promised senators during confirmation hearings in October he would review the matter after becoming attorney general.

In a calm, even tone, Mukasey deflected repeated questioning about the CIA videotapes, including whether he would ask for a special prosecutor to look into the issue as suggested by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Justice Department and the CIA's inspector general has opened a preliminary inquiry of the destroyed tapes, including looking to see if it amounts to an obstruction of justice.

"I think the Justice Department is capable of doing whatever it appears needs to be done," Mukasey said. "The question of a special prosecutor is the most hypothetical of hypotheticals, and that isn't going to be faced until it happens. And if it has to be, it will be."

Mukasey, standing at least several inches shorter than the five officials flanking him, read straight from prepared remarks when describing meetings with his European Union counterparts and often glanced into the audience of reporters during the hour-long briefing.

He was joined by a broadly grinning Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, a former assistant attorney general in charge of criminal cases, who appeared more than happy to punt questions about the CIA tapes back to Mukasey.

The new attorney general seemed fine with that.

"There's obviously intense interest in this," Mukasey said dryly.

© 2007 The Associated Press