WASHINGTON—The Senate Judiciary Committee sent the nomination of Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general to the full Senate on Wednesday, setting the stage for the first full-scale debate over torture and the harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists.
The vote was along strict party lines, with all 10 Republicans backing Gonzales and all eight Democrats opposing him. The Senate could take up the nomination next week.
The committee's Republicans praised Gonzales, who's President Bush's White House counsel and close adviser, as an ideal choice. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, described him as a man of "integrity, decency and honor who deserves to be confirmed."
The eight Democrats criticized Gonzales' role in a series of decisions that pushed the limits on interrogation methods and, they charged, paved the way for prisoner abuse from Iraq to the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that they said had crippled America's standing in the world.
Several Democrats said Gonzales had been evasive or unresponsive to questions, had refused to reconsider his legal advice on interrogations and, if confirmed, wouldn't be independent of the White House political agenda.
"My overwhelming problem with him is his judgment. It was just quite wrong," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del.
"I don't think he was candid, and (his nomination) sends the wrong message to the rest of the world," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Some Republicans said such criticism was unfair, because as White House counsel Gonzales had a limited role as a behind-the-scenes adviser in key decisions.
Gonzales "made it very clear that he knows the difference between being attorney general, where he represents all the people, and being White House counsel, where he's basically representing the president," Hatch said.
Republicans noted that Gonzales would be the nation's first Hispanic attorney general. Democrats focused on the issue of prisoner abuse, noting that recent reports of mistreatment go well beyond the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.
Legal and political experts said the Gonzales nomination gave the Senate an opportunity to grapple with difficult issues of interrogation and the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and in the war on terrorism, issues it's largely avoided since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"What you need in the Senate is a vehicle to get attention for these issues, and a nomination with tangible consequences like this one does just that," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who's studied Congress.
Eugene Fidell, a Washington lawyer and military-law expert, said: "It has taken this nomination to finally get full Senate consideration of important matters of underlying policy."
In his testimony, Gonzales renounced the use of torture, with no exceptions, but refused to discuss interrogation methods that may have included abuse that fell short of the legal definition of torture.
He interpreted the 1994 international Convention Against Torture, which bans "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment, as applying only in U.S. jurisdictions, not in handling foreign prisoners overseas.
Critics charge that that's given legal cover to American forces, in particular the CIA, to use harsh interrogation practices without worrying about torture statutes.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, circulated a letter from Abraham Sofaer, a State Department legal adviser in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations who worked on the anti-torture convention.
Sofaer supports Gonzales' nomination but said the White House counsel was wrong in his analysis of the Convention Against Torture. Sofaer urged Gonzales "to accept a different view" and not protect officials and agents who violate the ban.
Asked about Gonzales' responses, and whether U.S. agents are barred from abusing detainees overseas, President Bush said Wednesday: "Al Gonzales reflects our policy, and that is we don't sanction torture."
(Davies reports for The Miami Herald.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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