President Bush today demanded that Democratic lawmakers stop pressing his attorney general nominee for his views on a harsh CIA interrogation technique and called for a prompt Senate confirmation vote in the interests of battling terrorism.
Addressing the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, Bush used a speech on "the global war on terror" to lobby for former federal judge Michael B. Mukasey and defend the nominee's refusal to comment in his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings about the legality of "waterboarding," a controversial interrogation technique that simulates drowning.
Bush also called for congressional action on several key bills that he said are being held up, including an emergency war funding measure and spending bills for defense and veterans affairs.
The speech -- and an unusual Oval Office session with pool reporters that preceded it -- came as Democratic support for Mukasey dwindled over the waterboarding issue. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) announced today that he would oppose the nomination, becoming the fourth Democrat on the Judiciary Committee to declare his opposition.
Briefing reporters on his speech this morning, Bush refused to say whether waterboarding is now being used or whether he considers it legal. He insisted that whatever methods the CIA is using to extract information from suspected terrorists are "within the law" and should not be "broadcast to the enemy."
In his speech, Bush linked the Mukasey confirmation fight to the war on terrorism by arguing that "in a time of war, it is vital for the president to have a full national security team in place, and a key member of that team is the attorney general."
He asserted that "some in Congress are behaving as if America is not at war." Such politicians "are either being disingenuous or naive," he said. "Either way, it is dangerous for our country. We are at war. And we cannot win this war by wishing it away or pretending it does not exist."
In response, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called on Bush to heed his own advice and refocus U.S. resources on countering terrorist threats, which he said have escalated because of Bush's "flawed strategy in Iraq" and "mismanagement of the war."
"Just as we will not give the president a blank check for his directionless war, we refuse to rubberstamp his nominee for attorney general," Reid said in a statement. "The Senate fully intends to fulfill its constitutional duty and demand clarity from this nominee on the illegality of a technique the United States has previously prosecuted as torture. Ambiguity on this question endangers our soldiers abroad and is counterproductive to winning the war on terror."
Bush charged in his speech that the Senate Judiciary Committee has been holding up Mukasey's nomination although he has testified for nearly six hours, answered more than 200 questions at his hearing and responded to nearly 500 additional questions in writing.
"As a price for his confirmation, some on that committee want Judge Mukasey to take a legal position on specific techniques allegedly used to interrogate captured terrorists," Bush told the Heritage Foundation. He said Mukasey cannot do so for several reasons that the nominee explained in a letter to committee members.
"First, he does not know whether certain methods of questioning are, in fact, used, because the program is classified," Bush said. "And therefore, he is in no position to provide an informed opinion. He has not been read into the program and . . . won't be until he's confirmed and sworn in as the attorney general."
Bush said Mukasey also "does not want an uninformed opinion to be taken by our professional interrogators in the field as placing them in legal jeopardy." Nor does he want to "give the terrorists a window into which techniques we may use and which ones we may not use" -- information that Bush said "could help them train their operatives to resist questioning and withhold vital information we need to stop attacks and save lives."
Bush noted that Congress last year approved a law that allows the CIA to continue a program he put in place to question key terrorist operatives and leaders.
"The procedures used in this program are safe, they are lawful, and they are necessary," he said to applause from the supportive audience. He said that "senior leaders" of the House and Senate from both political parties have been briefed on the program's details. He did not identify them.
"It's wrong for congressional leaders to make Judge Mukasey's confirmation dependent on his willingness to go on the record about the details of a classified program he has not been briefed on," Bush said. "If the Senate Judiciary Committee were to block Judge Mukasey on these grounds, they would set a new standard for confirmation that could not be met by any responsible nominee for attorney general. And that would guarantee that America would have no attorney general during this time of war."
After chastising the Democratic-controlled Congress on several other issues, Bush drew his biggest round of applause from the conservative foundation when he blasted liberal antiwar organizations.
"When it comes to funding our troops, some in Washington should spend more time responding to the warnings of terrorists like Osama bin Laden and the requests of our commanders on the ground and less time responding to the demands of MoveOn.org bloggers and Code Pink protesters," Bush said.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, issued statements explaining decisions to oppose Mukasey's nomination, which initially had appeared likely to sail through the Senate. Bush named the former judge after his longtime confidant, Alberto R. Gonzales, resigned amid widespread complaints about his stewardship of the Justice Department and his testimony before Congress about such matters as the firing last year of nine federal prosecutors.
"Judge Mukasey's refusal to classify the barbaric practice of waterboarding as torture waves a red flag about his nomination to serve an administration that has adhered to the Cheney doctrine on executive power and torture," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said in a statement today.
"Many of us wanted to believe that Judge Mukasey could undo the damage of the Gonzales years," Kerry said. "Unfortunately his lack of candor and his refusal to acknowledge this abuse of power suggest he is unable or unwilling to do so, and this is why I will be opposing Judge Mukasey's nomination to be the next attorney general of the United States."
Kennedy said in a floor statement that he had hoped to support Mukasey's nomination but found him evasive and noncommittal on waterboarding and other issues related to torture. He also compared Mukasey's testimony to that given by Gonzales, who came under fire from Democrats for frequently refusing to answer questions or claiming he could not remember key details.
"Judge Mukasey's answers to our questions on torture remind me of nothing so much as the responses to the Senate on these issues by Attorney General Gonzales," Kennedy said. He said Mukasey "may have dressed up his responses in more skilled legal rhetoric, but the difference between his answers and those of Mr. Gonzales is disappointingly small."
Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden (Del.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) have also come out against the nomination, leaving six Democrats on the Judiciary panel undecided. Kerry is not a member of the committee.
Bush told reporters this morning that Mukasey "is not being treated fairly" and that it was "time to get his nomination to the floor so the Senate can vote him up or down."
When asked about his own view of the legality of waterboarding, Bush replied: "I'm not going to talk about techniques. There is an enemy out there. I don't want them to understand -- to be able to adjust one way or the other. My view is this: The American people have got to understand the program is important and the techniques used are within the law, and members of the House and Senate know what I'm talking about. They have been fully briefed."
He identified the lawmakers only as "select members of the Senate and House, both parties."
Mukasey's nomination has become a particularly thorny problem for his original Senate patron, Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). He had suggested Mukasey as a consensus nominee to the White House and declared two weeks ago that he should be confirmed, but he was noncommittal yesterday.
The committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), acknowledged that Mukasey's "confirmation is at risk." But he said the nominee went "about as far as he can go" in repudiating waterboarding without endangering classified programs or U.S. personnel involved in the interrogations.
If Specter and other eight GOP committee members support him, Mukasey will need support from just one Democrat to win approval from the committee, which is divided 10 to 9 along party lines.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also weighed in on the confirmation battle today, saying the United States does not use waterboarding these days and arguing that Mukasey would not allow the technique.
The Republican presidential candidate told students at Coastal Carolina University during a campaign trip through South Carolina that he was confident Mukasey "would not condone" waterboarding. "I have been briefed enough to know we are not doing that today anywhere in America's government," he added, according to the Associated Press.
McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam veteran who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war after he was shot down over Hanoi, said the United States should not engage in torture and that there was no need for waterboarding. He has described being repeatedly tortured himself during his confinement in the notorious prison known as the Hanoi Hilton.