WASHINGTON — Attorney General-nominee Alberto Gonzales, under scorching criticism from senators, condemned torture as an interrogation tactic Thursday and promised to prosecute abusers of terror suspects. He also disclosed the White House was looking at trying to change the Geneva Conventions that protect prisoner rights.
Pressed at his confirmation hearing by senators from both parties, the White House counsel defended his advice to President Bush that the treaty’s protections did not extend to al-Qaida and other suspected terrorists.
“Torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration,” Gonzales told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I will ensure the Department of Justice aggressively pursues those responsible for such abhorrent actions.”
Gonzales said that as attorney general, he would abide by the 1949 Geneva treaty. But he also said the White House was looking at the possibility of seeking revisions to the conventions.
“Now I’m not suggesting that the principles, the basic treatment of human beings, should be revisited,” Gonzales said. “But there has been some very preliminary discussion: Is this something that we ought to look at?”
He said the discussions have not gone far. “It’s not been a systematic project or effort to look at this question,” Gonzales said. “But some people I deal with, the lawyers, indicate maybe this is something we should look at.”
Sen. Charles Schumer later urged on Bush to consult Congress and he requested a congressional hearing. “My concern is not that these discussions are taking place, but that they are taking place in secret, behind closed doors, with no outside involvement,” Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote the president.
Democrats — and Republicans, at times — criticized the Bush administration’s policies on aggressive interrogation of terrorism suspects.
Gonzales is expected to be confirmed when Congress returns after Bush’s inauguration on Jan. 20. He would be the nation’s first Hispanic attorney general and replace John Ashcroft.
Democrats said it was Gonzales’ January 2002 memo that led to the abuse of suspected terrorists. He had argued in his memo that the fight against terrorism “renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.”
In the White House, Gonzales was at the center of decisions about “the legality of detention and interrogation methods that have been seen as tantamount to torture,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Gonzales, wearing an American flag pin in his lapel, sat alone at the witness table. Family members sat behind him in the crowded hearing room. Senators addressed the former Texas Supreme Court justice as “judge,” but pressed him repeatedly on administration policies.
Gonzales refused to back away from his legal opinion to Bush that terrorists captured overseas by Americans do not merit the conventions’ protections.
“My judgment was ... that it would not apply to al-Qaida — they weren’t a signatory to the convention,” he said.
Gonzales denied that any of the memos he wrote or reviewed in the White House had anything to do with the abuse.
“Would you not concede that your decision and the decision of the president to call into question the definition of torture, the need to comply with the Geneva Convention at least opened up a permissive environment of conduct?” asked Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat.
Gonzales said he was sickened and outraged by photos of abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. He described the U.S. troops in those photos as “people who were morally bankrupt having fun.” Other abuses of foreign detainees probably were caused because “there wasn’t adequate training, there wasn’t adequate supervision.”
“I respectfully disagree that there was some kind of permissive environment,” he said.
Gonzales’ response to some questions seemed to contradict his description of the conventions in his January 2002 memo.
“I consider the Geneva Convention neither obsolete or quaint,” he said at the hearing, promising to ensure U.S. compliance “with all of its legal obligations in fighting the war on terror.”
During his testimony, Gonzales also: