By James Rowley
Michael Mukasey, whose statements on torture and interrogation of suspected terrorists touched off a partisan Senate fight, has won confirmation to be the next U.S. attorney general.
Mukasey overcame opposition from Democrats who said he should have taken a less ambiguous position on torture. The late- night vote yesterday was 53-40 with six Democrats and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent, supporting the nomination. Four Democratic presidential candidates and one Republican, John McCain of Arizona, didn’t vote.
The new attorney general, the third to serve under President George W. Bush, will assume leadership of a Justice Department that has been damaged by charges of partisan politics. Supporters of Mukasey said he would restore morale at the department.
“Judge Mukasey’s confirmation comes at a critical moment for the Justice Department and for our nation,” Bush said in a statement released after the Senate vote. “Judge Mukasey is a man of strong character and integrity, with exceptional legal judgment.”
Mukasey, 66, a retired federal judge, is set to be sworn in at the Justice Department’s Washington headquarters later today, said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
“He’ll begin meeting with staff right away,” Fratto said.
Mukasey succeeds Alberto Gonzales, who resigned in August after his inability to explain the ouster of nine U.S. attorneys cost him support among Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Congressional committees are still pressing Bush to let presidential aides testify about their involvement in the firings.
`Chance for Change’
“This is our chance for change,” said California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, whose complaints about the U.S. attorney dismissals triggered the probes that drove Gonzales from office. Mukasey “will be a non-political, non-partisan attorney general.”
During confirmation hearings, Mukasey pledged to keep politics out of criminal prosecution and vowed to resign if Bush were to ignore his advice that an important initiative would be unconstitutional. These statements drew praise from most Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mukasey’s nomination encountered trouble when he refused to say whether waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning, was illegal torture.
That and other harsh interrogation techniques became an issue following reports that the Central Intelligence Agency used waterboarding to extract information from three al-Qaeda operatives after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and seven other Democrats on the panel opposed Mukasey. His nomination cleared the panel with the votes of just two Democrats, Feinstein and Charles Schumer of New York, and nine Republicans.
Mukasey said he found waterboarding “repugnant” yet refused to say whether it was illegal torture.
“If waterboarding is torture, torture is unconstitutional,” he said at the hearings last month. In a written response to a letter by senators seeking a fuller explanation, Mukasey refused to give a legal opinion based on “hypotheticals” instead of “the actual facts and circumstances.”
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said “Judge Mukasey’s position on waterboarding is troubling” because “he wouldn’t answer direct questions about other torture techniques” even though military officials consider them to be torture. “Sadly, he said time and again that his answers would depend on the facts and circumstances.”
`Put People at Risk’
Republicans defended Mukasey’s refusal to render a legal opinion about the legality of interrogation techniques that are classified.
“Judge Mukasey found himself in a situation where an expression of opinion by him would put people at risk” of prosecution or a civil suit, said Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter.
The Bush administration hasn’t said whether intelligence agents ever engaged in waterboarding, which is outlawed as a military technique. Still, Bush has insisted that the government has never used torture.
Schumer recommended fellow New Yorker Mukasey to replace Gonzales. He and Feinstein argued that new leadership was needed at the Justice Department to restore the agency’s political independence and boost low morale caused by the controversies that led to the resignations of Gonzales and other top officials involved in firing the U.S. attorneys.
“The Department of Justice, one of the crown jewels among our government institutions, is now adrift and rudderless,” Schumer said. “Politics had been allowed to infect all manner of decision-making” and now the agency “desperately needs a strong and independent leader at the helm. I believe Judge Mukasey is that person.”
Gonzales, who was White House counsel during Bush’s first term as president, succeeded John Ashcroft as attorney general in 2005.