Attorney general, lawmakers clash on torture

WASHINGTON Wed Jan 30, 2008 6:35pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey drew congressional fire on Wednesday for refusing to rule on the legality of waterboarding, and said the CIA may again seek to use the harsh interrogation method.

But Mukasey said before any CIA resumption of waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique condemned by much of the world as torture, he or his successors would determine if it is lawful and the matter would go to the president.

"Those steps may never be taken, but if they are I commit to you today that this committee will be notified," Mukasey told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Bush administration has come under heavy scrutiny from critics at home and abroad over harsh interrogation methods used on terrorism suspects since the September 11 attacks.

The CIA used waterboarding soon after it began interrogating people captured in President George W. Bush's war on terrorism. The president has said the United States does not torture. Waterboarding is prohibited in the U.S. military.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, opened Wednesday's hearing by saying, "This administration has so twisted America's role, law and values that our own State Department, our military officers and, apparently, America's top law enforcement officer, are now instructed by the White House not to say that waterboarding is torture and illegal."

"Never mind that waterboarding has been recognized as torture for the last 500 years," Leahy said. "Never mind that President Teddy Roosevelt properly prosecuted Americans soldiers for this more than 100 years ago."

Following nearly four hours of grilling of Mukasey by committee members, Leahy closed the hearing, saying the moral authority of the United States was at stake.

FINAL PRESIDENTIAL SAY

The Senate narrowly confirmed Mukasey in November to replace Alberto Gonzales as chief U.S. law enforcement officer. Many voted no largely because of Mukasey's refusal to say if waterboarding is torture and therefore violates U.S. law.

Mukasey promised during his confirmation hearing that he would review the legality of interrogation techniques used by the CIA if he became attorney general.

He testified on Wednesday he had been authorized to say what had already been reported -- that waterboarding is not currently used by the CIA. Therefore, he said, he would not rule on its legality.

Mukasey's comments irritated lawmakers, and prompted Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusett Democrat, to ask him, "Would waterboarding be torture if it was done to you?"

"I would feel that it was," Mukasey replied.

But the attorney general added, "This is an issue on which people of equal intelligence and equal good faith and equal vehemence have differed."

Lawmakers praised Mukasey for ordering a federal probe this month into the CIA's destruction of videotapes of the harsh interrogation of two terrorism suspects in 2002.

Yet senators voiced frustration that Mukasey did not commit to investigate whether CIA personnel who had used waterboarding violated the law.

Mukasey said he first wanted to see the results of the investigation of the destroyed tapes, which may disclose how questioning of detainees was conducted.

Mukasey became attorney general after Gonzales resigned in September under pressure from Democrats and Republicans who questioned his competency and honesty and accused him of having become a political tool of the White House.

(Editing by David Alexander)

(randall.mikkelsen@reuters.com; +1 202 898 8300; Reuters Messaging: randall.mikkelsen.reuters.com@reuters.net))

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