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Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales’ confirmation hearing opened Thursday morning to a packed audience in one of the Senate’s largest hearing rooms. By the close of the morning session, it was clear that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were going to have a tough time wresting direct answers from the 49-year-old Texas lawyer and White House counsel about his role in shaping some of the Bush administration’s controversial policies on torture, the application of the Geneva Conventions to suspected terrorists, and the legal rights of prisoners captured in Iraq. At issue in particular was an August 2002 memo from the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, which gave Central Intelligence Agency interrogators legal approval for certain types of torture. Gonzales reportedly did not seek the input of military or State Department lawyers when approving the controversial memo, whose contents were ultimately reversed by the administration just last month. From the start, the hearing, the first one run by the committee’s newly appointed chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), was a blatantly partisan affair. In introducing Gonzales, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) defended the nominee. “It disheartens me to see him held up to ridicule, distortion, and outright lies for being the patriot he is,” Cornyn said. Republicans asked questions that Gonzales could answer with little or no equivocation. Democrats pushed for Gonzales’ opinion on a wider variety of subjects. “Do you approve of torture?” asked Specter, who opened the questioning, which was limited to 10 minutes per member. “Absolutely not,” answered Gonzales. “As a human being, I am outraged and sickened by these photos,” he said, referring to pictures of U.S. soldiers forcing Iraq prisoners to pose in degrading positions. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee’s senior Democrat, asked whether Gonzales agreed with the 2002 Justice Department memo that held that mistreatment amounted to torture only “if it produced severe pain equivalent to that associated with organ failure or death.” The nominee replied, “I don’t recall today whether I was in agreement with all of the analysis.” The soft-spoken Gonzales, who has a noticeable Texas twang, maintained his composure throughout the morning, despite an outburst from Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), apparently frustrated at Gonzales’ lack of a pointed response. The hearing, said Biden, at one point almost shouting at Gonzales, “is not about your intelligence, and not about your integrity. “It’s about your judgment. We’re looking for candor,” said Biden. “I love you, but you’re not very candid so far. You’re obliged to comment.” Later, when pressed by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) about whether torture can yield useful intelligence, Gonzales demurred again. “I don’t have a way of reaching a conclusion,” he said. Gonzales’ pulled-up-by-the-bootstraps background was praised by both sides. His wife and three children, his mother-in-law, and his brother, a Houston policeman, sat in the audience “This is a Horatio Alger story with a Hispanic background,” Specter said.

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