Judiciary Democrats Press AG on Torture Stance

Posted January 23, 2008 at 6:47pm

Revving up for their first fight with the new attorney general, the 10 Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter Wednesday to Michael Mukasey pressing him to clarify his stance on waterboarding.

The letter asks Mukasey to answer two questions: Is the use of waterboarding “illegal” under U.S. law, including international treaties the United States has signed? Secondly, are “other coercive techniques” employed in the war on terror legal, too?

The letter is signed by all of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, including Chairman Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.). Also signing the letter were two Democrats who pointedly supported Mukasey in his contentious confirmation hearing: Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.).

Mukasey’s answers are likely to be the centerpiece of his first oversight hearing before the Judiciary Committee on Jan. 30.

Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the attorney general is reviewing “any coercive techniques currently used by our government” in order to determine whether they are “lawful.”

“When he is in a position to do so, he will inform the Judiciary Committee of his conclusions,” Carr said.

But after a year in which their new majority scored big political hits on the Bush Justice Department, Democrats are unlikely to wait patiently.

After initially praising Mukasey, Democrats turned on the former judge when he refused to testify during confirmation hearings that waterboarding qualified as torture.

Though Mukasey said waterboarding was personally repugnant to him, he refused to condemn it on a legal basis before he was privy to the administration’s classified interrogation program.

Democrats subsequently nearly sank his nomination, with only six of them supporting Mukasey when he was confirmed by the full Senate, 53-40, on Nov. 8.

On Nov. 9, GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), a top contender for the Republican presidential nod, and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), both outspoken opponents of waterboarding, sent a letter to Mukasey arguing that it was now “vital” that he declared waterboarding illegal.

Since then, Mukasey actively has been working to thaw relations with Hill Democrats, who battered the Justice Department in 2007 over the politically charged firing of nine U.S. attorneys. Contempt of Congress citations are possible and Alberto Gonzales resigned as attorney general as a result of the aggressive probe.

In one move welcomed by skeptical Democrats, Mukasey opened a criminal investigation to plumb the destruction of CIA tapes recording the interrogation of terrorist suspects, which reportedly included depictions of waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique.

In Wednesday’s letter, Democrats noted that Mukasey’s unclear stance posed a problem for deputy attorney general nominee Mark Filip, a former district judge from Chicago in Durbin’s home state. During his confirmation hearings before the holidays, Filip also declined to unequivocally state that waterboarding was torture because of Mukasey’s own answers during his confirmation proceedings.